Enryo (遠慮) is one of the most quintessential Japanese concepts. Japanese dictionary Kōjien provides the definition “restraining speech/actions towards people” (「人に対して言語・行動を控え目にすること」). Enryo is central to the image of Japan as a passive society, where people work to avoid conflict through self-restraint. Enryo means not using your mobile phone on the train, not throwing out all of your trash in one big bag, and recently, not lighting up that cigarette wherever you want.
In everyday language, enryo is often used to avoid an unpleasant linguistic phenomenon — the dreaded negative form. Japanese verbs come in four basic varieties: present/future, past, present/future negative, and past negative. Here’s a quick example how this works with the verb taberu, “eat”:
Present/future taberu Past tabeta Present/future negative tabenai Past negative tabenakatta
Those bolded endings on the negative verbs are the offenders: nai, nakatta, and their more polite distal cousins masen and masen deshita. Shiver when you hear them, for they mean no. Not only are they negative in meaning, they also tend to have negative connotations, especially when combined with directness and applied to a topic brought up by the other speaker.
But then, how do the Japanese talk about avoiding things? Are they constantly accepting invitations to boring events? (“Yes, I’ll go see a Noh play with you, darling.”) Eating things they don’t want to eat? (“Yes, raw horse sounds lovely.”) And drinking things they don’t want to drink? (“There is a venomous snake in that distilled liquor? Fantastic.”)
No, in fact, they have very little difficulty in refusing to do these things, and it’s all thanks to enryo. Through enryo, they are restraining themselves from doing something else (i.e. not doing it). Enryo shimasu is the ultimate refusal: it allows the speaker to admire the offer as a tempting one while regretfully declining it for the sake of some implicit greater good, all without any negativity whatsoever. For this reason, it also works great as sarcasm: “Will you sing ‘Country Roads’ for us at karaoke?” Enryo shimasu.
Similarly, go-enryo kudasai (“Please enryo”) is the polite way to keep people in line. Rather than telling them not to do something, which would involve mucking around with nai (e.g. Tabako wo suwanaide kudasai, “Please don’t smoke”), you can appeal to their higher nature and ask them to proactively refrain from it (e.g. Kitsuen wa goenryo kudasai, “Please refrain from smoking”).
This concept is not totally foreign to the English language. Rather than saying “I can’t,” people (often very annoying people in service positions) use “I am unable to,” and “please refrain from” is a useful alternative to the negative imperative. The ultimate example comes from Pirates of the Caribbean, where Captain Barbossa denies Elizabeth Swann’s request for parlay with “I am disinclined to acquiesce to your request.” Very much like enryo shimasu: “IT MEANS NO!”