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Meaning of “すみません/Sumimasen” and how and when to use it

すみません is a word that has three meanings: Apology, Appreciation, and Request.

The phrase すみません is used in situations where you apologize for causing trouble or making a mistake, when you express your gratitude for something done to you, or when you make a request while feeling sorry for putting a burden on someone. in a business context, this phrase is appropriate for someone who is in equal or lower rank than you, and you should not be using it to someone superior to you like your boss.

Sometimes すみません is written or spoken as すいません/Suimasen and it’s derived from すみません. It is said to have originated from the sound of み/mi in the すみません changed to い/i. Either すみません or すいません will convey the same message to other people because すいません is a spoken word, it should not be used when it’s written. Therefore, use すみません instead of すいません in emails and letters.

Example of すみません: Apology



I'm sorry I didn't get a chance to take time out the other day.



I'm sorry for making you worry.



I'm sorry to have caused you so much trouble in your busy schedule.

When you have caused trouble or burden to someone, すみません is used as an apology but it is important to note that depending on the matter you are apologizing for, and the person you are apologizing to, it may not be appropriate. In business situations, すみません can only be used to apologize for minor mistakes. Apologizing for a serious mistake or negligence with すみません is very insulting and inappropriate. Although すみません is a polite term, it is not an honorific and can only be used to people who are the same or lower in rank or who are close to you.

Example of すみません: Appreciation



I'm sorry that I even received a souvenir from your business trip.

→Meaning: Thank you so much for the souvenir from your business trip



I'm sorry you had to go out of your way to help me. It's very helpful.

→Meaning: Thank you for much for helping me, it’s very helpful.



I’m sorry for taking your time to teach me.

→Meaning: Thank you for taking the time to teach me.

The word すみません can also be used to show gratitude or modesty.

In this case, すみません is used to mean that when someone does something for you or you receive something, you are so grateful for it that you feel sorry for it. すみません is a polite and light-hearted expression and is used to express simple gratitude to your boss or others in the same or lower position, or in a close relationship. When expressing gratitude, すみません is used to signify a sense of modesty of typical of Japanese people, but nowadays it is becoming more and more recommended to use ありがとう/Arigato/Thank you instead of すみません.

Example of すみません: Request



Excuse me, could you please help me organize the files?



Excuse me, could you give me a few minutes of your time before the meeting?



Excuse me, could you please show me how to use the printer?

The word すみません is also an expression that can be used to ask someone to do something for you. When you ask someone to do something, you are interrupting what they are doing and putting a burden on them in some way. Apologies and gratitude for this are included in the word すみません. However, while すみません is a polite term, it is not an honorific, so when using it in a business context, be sure to use it with someone who is in a similar or lower position to you, or a supervisor with whom you have a close relationship.

The word すみません can mean an apology, appreciation, and request. It has a variety of uses and analogies and is very useful, but it is important to use it differently depending on the situation and the relationship between you and the person you are speaking to.

It's important to remember that すみません is not an honorific term and should be rephrased in a polite manner in business situations.

Momoka Yamaguchi

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