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.