For those who teach or have studied Chinese, you no doubt have been asked numerous times how to say “hello” in Chinese. What is the correct response? Well, it depends on whom you are greeting, your relationship with them, where you are, and so on. In other words, it is not a simple 你好 nǐ hǎo as the vast majority of beginning level Chinese textbooks would have you believe. It is a fact that most textbooks simply state that the Chinese greeting 你好 nǐ hǎo is the equivalent of “hello” in English. End of story. And those textbooks are wrong! Those who have spent time in Chinese speaking communities know that this is simply not the case, except when speaking with foreigners.
A few years ago I set out to really determine how and when 你好 nǐ hǎo is used by the Chinese among themselves. In other words, is it an authentic greeting in Chinese society? While directing two study abroad programs in Nanjing, China, I sent my students out onto campus, into the streets, stores, markets, and so on, to observe how Chinese greet each other. The result? Zero occurrences of 你好 nǐ hǎo. That’s right, zero. I then looked at contemporary films from China, and likewise I observed no usage of the greeting. There was one film where one of the characters actually used 你好 nǐ hǎo, but he was accused of trying to sound like a foreigner. I also looked at contemporary fiction, to see if I could find this greeting in use among natives. Again, no luck.
After all this field work, and interviewing many native Chinese, I came to these conclusions. 你好 nǐ hǎo is a legitimate greeting but it is only used in formal contexts, and usually when meeting someone for the first time. This would include in a business or academic setting, and usually by someone in an inferior position, such as a student, to someone in a superior position, such as a teacher. Even in these contexts, it does sound like foreigner talk. About the only other time the Chinese use 你好 nǐ hǎo is when greeting foreigners.
If this perceived common greeting is really not used that much, then how do the Chinese greet each other. According to my research, the following greetings are commonly used by the Chinese in informal contexts, with people that they are familiar with.
1. A ritual expression such as 你去哪儿 nǐ qù nǎr, meaning, “where are you going?” when seeing someone out on the street. Or, around mealtimes you might say, 吃饭了吗？ chī fàn le ma, meaning “have you eaten yet?” These kinds of expressions are a means of expressing concern or well being for the other person.
2. Acknowledgment of action—this is simply stating what the person is doing when you see them. For example, you come home to your apartment and your roommate is watching TV. You would simply say, 看电视啊 kàn diànshì a, meaning, “you’re watching TV.” This sounds a little odd to an American but is a very common practice among Chinese.
3. Use the person’s name or title—it is quite common among friends, classmates, relatives, and co-workers to say the person’s name or title as a form of greeting.
4. No greeting—In many situations when an American is conditioned to give a greeting, the Chinese would simply say nothing. This is particularly true in service industries where the worker or clerk is perceived to be of a lower social status. For example, in a store in the US, you would probably greet a salesperson before asking for help. In China, a greeting would usually not be used; you would simply ask for the help you need.
The bottom line is that 你好 nǐ hǎo is associated with foreigners. Resist the urge to equate it with “hello” or “hi.” Foreigners are notorious for overusing it, so restrain yourself and do as the Chinese do. And by the way, you would never say 你好 nǐ hǎo to the person selling sweet potatoes in the picture above.
If you want to see the entire article I wrote about greetings in Chinese, as well as another excellent article on the topic, see:
Christensen, Matthew B. “你好 and Greeting Strategies in Mandarin Chinese.” Journal of the Chinese Language Teachers Association. Vol. 41, No. 3, October 2006, pp. 19-34.
Erbaugh, Mary. “China Expands Its Courtesy: Saying “Hello” to Strangers.” The Journal of Asian Studies. Volume 67, Issue 2, pp. 621-652.