More on Terms of Address

The owner of a small restaurant

A few posts ago I talked about terms of address. I’m afraid terms of address are quite complicated in Chinese. In fact, the complexity of the system is a direct reflection of hierarchy in Chinese society. That is, it is very important how you address an individual based on your relationship with them. If the person you are addressing is in a position above your own, you will address them differently than if they are in a position perceived as below your own.

Familial Terms

This is true for familial titles, or terms for your relatives as well. Basically, if a relative is older than you, you address them by their title. If they are younger than you, you can basically call them anything you want, from their given name to a nickname or anything else.

For a detailed list of familial terms of address, see this website. Be warned that the list goes on for pages.

In reality there are specific terms for just about every relationship you can imagine within an extended family. And the terms are different if you are addressing someone on your father’s side versus your mother’s side. It is incredibly complex. For example, last week I attended my nephew’s wedding, the son of my older brother. I was meeting with a Chinese colleague and wanted to tell him about it, but I first had to look up the term for “nephew” and not just any nephew, but the son of my brother, because the term is different if it is was my sister’s son.

Even in immediate families it is common for younger siblings to address their older siblings by a title, such as 哥哥 gēge or 大哥 dàgē for older brothers, and 姐姐 jiějie or 大姐 dàjiě for older sisters. If you had more than one older brother of sister, you would refer to them in the order of their birth. For example, your oldest older brother would be 大哥 and the others would be 二哥 èrgē,三哥 sāngē and so on.

Familiar Terms Outside the Family

Familiar terms are also used outside the family, even with people you do not know, such as with people that work in stores, restaurants, train stations, or friends of family members, such as your parents friends. For example, children will often address adults with terms like 大哥 or 大姐 for young adults, and older individuals with terms like 叔叔 shūshu (uncle) or 阿姨 āyí (auntie). In Northeastern China, the term 大妹子 dà meìzi can also be used for a young woman. For very old people, one can use the terms 大叔 dàshū or 大爷 dàyě for someone really old, or for women, 阿姨 or for a very old woman, 奶奶 nǎinai.

It is not necessary to memorize all the familiar terms. In fact, even native Chinese get confused and don’t know all the proper terms for all their extended relatives.

Other Terms of Address

A common way to address a child, whether male or female is 小朋友 xiǎo péngyǒu(literally “little friend”).

A fairly common term used to address people in the service industry, or those considered skilled workers or experts, such as drivers, coaches, and so on, is 师傅 shīfu. This term means “master” but is used beyond that specific meaning.

The term 服务员 fúwùyuán is also a term used in the service industry and is specifically used for waiters and waitresses, clerks, salespeople in stores, and so on. The term literally means “service personel.”

If you take the time to learn how to address people in China it will go a long way in showing  respect to those with whom you associate. It will also make those with whom you communicate feel comfortable, especially when dealing with a foreigner. Remember that the goal is for people to feel comfortable communicating with you, for you to communicate the way Chinese expect people to communicate.

How do you address someone in China?

This may seem like a rather simple question, but it is important, and differs from how we address people in the US. In China, hierarchy is an important part of social interactions. That is, who you are and your position in relation to others determines to a large extent how you address them. This is why, in China, that individuals will always exchange business cards when first meet so they know how to address each other.

Terms of address, or how you address someone, depends on your level of familiarity with the person and the formality of the occasion.  Below I describe various ways to address people.

1. Surname + title

This is the most formal, and safest way to address someone. In Chinese, surnames always come first. This kind of address is appropriate in all formal occasions and whenever you are addressing someone in a position superior to your own or to someone older than you. For example, if you are a student, and your teacher has the surname 王 wáng, you would address her as:

王老师 wáng lǎoshī          Teacher Wang

Or if your boss is a manager, and is surnamed Zhang 张 zhāng, you would address him as:

张经理 zhāng jīnglǐ            Manager Zhang

2. Full name (姓名 xìngmíng)

Unlike in the US, it is very common to address a person by their full name. It does not sound strange at all. Even people that know each other well, may address each other by their full names if they are in a more formal setting. Husbands and wives will even use their full names with each other when they are in public. This term of address is common in the workplace among colleagues, as well as at school with Chinese classmates.

You will most likely use these two terms of address with the vast majority of your Chinese contacts.

3. Given name (名字 míngzi)

You have to know someone pretty well to be on a first name basis. This is quite different from the US where you can meet someone for the very first time and refer to them by their given or first name. In China it takes quite a long time to get to the familiarity level to call someone by their given name. This term of address is reserved for in-group individuals, such as friends, classmates, and co-workers that have a similar social status as you.

4. Nickname

Just as in the US, nicknames are reserved for those with whom you are very familiar, such as family members, close friends, and close colleagues. Nicknames in Chinese are often given based on physical characteristics, or personality traits. These kinds of nicknames are called 绰号 chuòhào or the more colloquial term 外号 wàihào. Here are some examples of these kinds of nicknames:

小胖 xiǎo pàng             “little fatty” for the chubby person

四眼王 sìyán wáng      “four eyes Wang” for the guy that wears glasses

书呆子  shūdāizi          “bookworm” for the person that always has their nose in a book

A Chinese associate of mine explained to me that her nickname among her friends growing up was 老五 lǎowǔ. This name came about because she had four close girlfriends and she was the youngest. In Northern Mandarin 老 lǎo refers to the youngest member of a group. Since she was the youngest of the five, they used this nickname. You could also use this term for a relative. For example, if you had three uncles, you might refer to the youngest as 老舅lǎojiù or your youngest aunt as 老姨 lǎoyí.

Some nicknames are terms of endearment, and are often a variation of a person’s name and are called 昵称 nìchēng in Chinese. I had a friend who was a bit older than her group of friends so they gave her the nickname, 姐姐 jiějie, “older sister” and called her 冯姐姐 féng jiějie(her surname was Feng). Another friend was named 吴小琪 wú xiǎoqí and her parents and grandparents called her 琪琪 qíqí.

You are quite safe addressing Chinese with surname + title or by their full name. Be careful about using given names or nicknames. Relationships in China form and develop much slower than in the US and it may take quite a bit of time to get on those very familiar terms with someone.

One final note: in the US you will undoubtedly meet Chinese who will introduce themselves with their given name, either their Chinese given name or an English name. What do you call them? The rule I generally use, is that if you are speaking Chinese with them, I go by the Chinese practice of calling them by their surname and title or by their full name. If you are speaking English with them, and they have an English name, go ahead and use the English name. If they do not have an English name, I am uncomfortable calling most Chinese by their given name, even if we are speaking English.

No thank you’s, please.

typical Nanjing breakfast

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.

typical department store

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.

More on 你好。

Several years ago I was teaching a Chinese teacher training course. One of my students was a native of Taiwan and was a Chinese teacher at one of the international high schools in Beijing. She related the following story:

One day after a long day at work teaching beginning level Mandarin Chinese courses, she stopped at an outdoor market to buy something. She approached a booth to inquire about the price of the item. The vendor had his back to her when she said,

“你好, (name of the item) 多少钱?” nǐ hǎo,  (name of the item) duōshǎo qián

“Hello, how much is (name of the item)?”

Without turning around, the man gave her an astronomically high price. Because she was Chinese, she was offended that he would quote her such a ridiculously high price, especially since she knew the value of the item. She laid into him in Chinese berating him for suggesting such a high price. He wheeled around in surprise and said,

“对不起,我以为你是外国人”。duìbùqì, wǒ yǐwéi nǐ shì wàiguó rén

“Sorry, I thought you were a foreigner.”

Being a native of Chinese, the vendor certainly did not mistake her for a foreigner because of her Chinese language skills; it was because she initiated this exchange with 你好. An outdoor market like this is very informal, and a formal greeting like this is simply unnecessary and not used among the Chinese. For an American, it would be natural to offer a simple greeting in this kind of context. So, how would a Chinese (and how should you) greet someone in this kind of situation? They wouldn’t use a greeting. They would simply ask how much the item cost.

你好 (Hello, I’m a foreigner)

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.

The most dangerous person in China

No, this kid is not the most dangerous person in China. In fact, he was quite innocent and rather excited to have a conversation, in Chinese, with a foreigner.

The most dangerous person in China is the foreigner with excellent language skills but is clueless when it comes to culture, especially behavioral culture. The problem is that if you have really good Chinese, the Chinese will expect that you know how to play the game; they will expect you to behave like they do. Cultural coherence refers to speaking and acting like Chinese expect people to speak and act. If someone has good speaking skills but acts like a typical American, they will undoubtedly offend people. In fact, the Chinese will most likely believe that you intended to offend them. Again, to the Chinese good Chinese means that you should know how to behave yourself. For example, the American with good Chinese uses typical American sarcasm with his Chinese colleagues and they are offended because they simply don’t understand American sarcasm. Sometimes we call this speaking English in Chinese.

It is simply impossible to separate language from culture. All communicative situations are situated within a cultural context. For language learners it is essential to pay close attention to context. It’s not just about what to say, but also when to say it, with whom it is appropriate, and so on. You must understand why certain language is used in certain situations. Language and behavior in all communicative situations are governed by the following conditions:

  1. time
  2. place
  3. roles of the individuals involved
  4. script (which includes dialogue and actions)
  5. audience (those around not directly involved)

Our behavior certainly changes from the boardroom to the classroom to the street corner. Likewise the many roles we play in life will also determine our linguistic and social behavior—from student to employee to boss to friend, classmate, and so on. Even something as simple as a greeting must be contextualized. How you greet someone depends on where you are, when the greeting takes place, and your relationship with the person you are greeting. If you change one of these conditions, then the greeting will likely change as well. Greeting your teacher or your boss will be very different from greeting your roommate or your mother.

The Rules Change

Crossing international borders can be traumatic. This is especially true traveling to a country like China. Even with Chinese language skills in hand, it can be challenging knowing exactly what to expect. In China the rules are different.

I remember a few years ago sitting in a small restaurant on Qingdao Rd. near Nanjing University when three of my students walked in. We had only been in country for about two days. They did not see me so I decided to stay quiet and observe. They stood just inside the door waiting for someone to greet them and show them to a seat. As they waited I could see their frustration growing. At the same time I could hear the two servers saying,

“What are they doing?”

“I don’t know, maybe waiting for someone.”

The servers seemed just as perplexed as my students. These students had two years of formal Chinese study at my university, so I knew that linguistically that they could handle themselves. The problem was that they did not know what to expect in a Chinese restaurant. As such, they had no choice but to fall back on their American cultural experience with restaurants—you are usually greeted and shown to a table. In small restaurants in China that is not the case; you simply find an empty table yourself and the servers will bring you a menu.

Being successful in China requires that one learn a new set of rules or behaviors. It’s like learning how to play a new sport. You may be familiar with other sports and be pretty good at them, but if you don’t know the rules of the new game, you probably won’t be a very good player.

An analogy might help. Let’s say that American culture is like baseball and Chinese culture is like tennis. Both sports have a good share of similarities—playing fields, boundaries, a ball, an instrument to hit the ball, and so on. If you are only familiar with baseball and show up in China and find yourself on a tennis court, you’re in for trouble. The ball is served to you and your first inclination is to hit the ball as hard as you can, preferably over the fence. This is your frame of reference. And if you hit the ball over the fence, the Chinese will find this very strange. If you continue to do this, they will eventually take their ball and go home, and will probably not invite you to play again.

China can be a pretty rough place if you don’t know what to expect. These rules can be better understood as cultural and social behavior, and this goes beyond traditional language training. Even without Chinese language skills, knowing what to expect in typical situations you are likely to encounter will make a huge difference in your interactions with others and your ability to get around and understand what is going on around you.

This blog is an attempt to discuss various aspects of learning the Chinese language, explore Chinese culture, and analyze the intricacies of intercultural communication.