Politeness and courteous language is another area where beginning (and even advanced) learners of Chinese stumble. If you don’t know how to act in a given situation, then you have no choice but to fall back on how you would behave in a like situation in your own culture.
In the United States we are conditioned to be polite, and nice to everyone, from family members to complete strangers that we will likely never see again. This politeness includes using lots of please’s and thank you’s. When learners of Chinese fail to understand how and when to use this kind of polite language they fall back on practices ingrained in their own cultural upbringing. Americans in China notoriously overuse the expressions 请 qǐng and 谢谢 xièxie. They go around saying 谢谢 xièxie to everyone regardless of their relationship with the person. I have personally observed students making a transaction on the street with a peasant selling mangoes. The exchange went something like this:
请问，芒果多少钱？ qǐngwèn, mángguǒ duōshǎo qián?
Please may I ask, now much are the mangoes?
The seller was visibly uncomfortable and probably perplexed, and maybe a bit amused. After the transaction was made, the student responded with:
谢谢，谢谢。 xièxie, xièxie
Thank you, thank you.
This kind of behavior is so natural to an American that it is hard to think it could possibly be inappropriate. But most Chinese would find this behavior odd, even strange. To make matters worse, practically every beginning level Chinese language textbook simply translates 谢谢 as “thank you” and 请 as “please” with no further discussion about how and when to use these expressions appropriately.
In China the use of polite language is different. Chinese society is governed to a large degree on hierarchy. That is, you act differently with people above and below your position or status in society. For example, it would be very unusual for a Chinese person to thank a store clerk with a 谢谢 after making a purchase. The same goes for the clerk—they would not use this expression with a customer. The Chinese would likewise not use these polite words with people they are close to, such as family members, friends, and colleagues. With people close to you formal language is not appropriate unless you are intentionally trying to sound sarcastic or distance yourself from the person. Polite language like this is reserved for formal occasions, often when dealing with someone in a social position higher than yours, such as your boss.
In recent years there has been a campaign by the Chinese government to clean up their courteous language or improve their verbal hygiene. Erbaugh (2008) reports that as early as 1980 the Chinese Communist Party promoted the use of five courteous phrases, 五个礼貌的词 wǔge lǐmào de cí, based on the impersonal Western-derived phrases, “hello,” “please,” “sorry,” “thank you,” and “goodbye,” with the Chinese equivalents 你好 nǐ hǎo ，请 qǐng ，对不起 duìbuqǐ ，谢谢 xièxie ，and 再见 zàijiàn. The fact that the government would promote the use of these phrases in everyday encounters is pretty good evidence that they are not commonly used by Chinese with Chinese.
With increased exposure to the West and increasing numbers of foreigners traveling to China, these kinds of phrases are heard with increasing regularity. Many Chinese who have regular interactions with foreigners understand that these courtesy words are expected and so they use them. But you still seldom hear them used among Chinese. As learners of Chinese we should strive to behave the way Chinese expect people to behave, linguistically and behaviorally. The Chinese should not have to adapt or modify their behavior to communicate with us.
In conclusion, here are a couple reminders.
1. Save your 谢谢’s for formal occasions. Resist the urge to thank people in informal contexts such as at restaurants, stores, street markets, etc. You’re not going to offend any Chinese but not saying it.
2. Likewise, save your 请问’s for more formal occasions. Just because you are asking a question does not mean you have to begin with 请问. For example, at a market, if you want to know the price of something, just ask directly.
Erbaugh, Mary. 2008. “China Expands Its Courtesy: Saying “Hello.” The Journal of Asian Studies. Volume 67, Number 2.