A New Understanding of かしら
Today, I refined my understanding of the word かしら (kashira). This word is put at the end of a sentence to make it into a question or request for confirmation.
For example, if you want to go home, you could ask your boss the following.
kaette mo ii deshou ka
Nuance: May I go home now?
If you are talking to one of your colleagues, however, you can use this instead. (This is kind of a standard way to say it — not overly polite, but not casual.)
kaette mo ii desu ka
Nuance: Can I go home now?
If you are chatting with friends, the following are fine.
kaette mo ii kashira
Nuance: Do you mind if I leave?
kaette mo ii kana
Nuance: I wonder if it’s okay for me to leave. (Implies more doubt, like asking oneself in addition to asking the listener)
かしら is mainly used by women, but you will hear certain men use it too sometimes (very rarely). かしら is a casual way to ask a question (or ask for confirmation), but it has a nice sound, so it leaves the listener with a good impression — AS LONG AS the listener is your friend and equal and not your superior.
I always thought that かしら was higher on the “politeness scale” because one of my very good (and very polite) friends uses it all the time. What I realize now is that she uses it with me because I am her friend AND she wants it to sound nice. My mistake was thinking that she uses it only because it is polite. (And that is a serious mistake in my thinking, because I should have recognized that she wouldn’t be using very formal language with me.)
This is one of the most difficult things about learning Japanese. The choice of words depends on the relationship between the people who are talking, their gender, the situation, etc. This is, I’m sure, true of all languages to a certain extent, but it is extremely well developed in Japanese. This means that the usual language learner’s trick of learning by mimicking what is said to you doesn’t always work in Japanese, and can even be quite detrimental to your language development. (For example, it is very common to hear foreign men speak in a somewhat more feminine way because they learn by listening to their Japanese girlfriends and wives.)
Words in another language are like tools in your dad’s workshop. Even if you know what a lot of them are, if you don’t know how to use them, they are worthless, or worse yet, they may even hurt you. This means that it is important to give as much attention to learning the USAGE of the word as the MEANING by looking up examples of the word in use (http://www.alc.co.jp is good for this), asking your colleagues, and testing out the usage of words on good friends (since they are, hopefully, least likely to be offended if you use the wrong level of politeness).
So, to sum up, if you are a woman, you might want to try using かしら to make your Japanese sound more refined — remembering that it just sounds nice and is not particularly polite. Just be sure to take account of the relationship between you and the listener (and all the other usage variables) before you do!