When it comes to language learning, figuring our the commonly-used words and phrases is essential. From language to language, the particular words and phrases you learn will differ a bit — a country’s phrases are closely related to its culture and traditions, and Chinese is no exception.
In this article, we'll introduce you to seven phrases and questions that can often be heard when Chinese people go about their daily conversations.
Starting a conversation
你好 (nǐ hǎo) — Hello
“你好 nǐ hǎo” is the most common way of saying hello in Chinese, which means that you'll often hear it when two Chinese people start a conversation. In this word, “你 nǐ” means “you,” and “好 hǎo” means “good,” so its literal meaning is “you good.”
Traditional Chinese culture stresses the importance of friendship and the importance of caring for other people. Consequently, the logic behind the use of “你好 nǐ hǎo” is more or less related to the fact that Chinese people tend to be “well-wishing” when they say hello to each other. In other words, Chinese people hope everything is going well with those they say hello to, including strangers.
In Northern China, you might also hear “您好 nín hǎo” on a regular basis. The word itself also means “hello,” and in comparison with “你好 nǐ hǎo,” the only difference lies in the meaning of “您 nín,” which is the polite form of “you”. This doesn’t mean that “你好 nǐ hǎo” is impolite, however. It only shows that different speaking habits can be observed in different parts of China. It’s a big country!
你吃饭了吗? (nǐ chī fàn le ma?) — Have you had your lunch/dinner?
The literal meaning of this question is “have you eaten?”
Chinese people have a tendency to ask if their friends have finished their lunch or dinner as a way to start a conversation. Though it might sound a bit odd in English, it’s perfectly normal in Chinese. In fact, it’s a way of showing warmth between close friends. This question can be considered the equivalent to English’s “how are you doing?”
However, the logic behind this question is not that Chinese people are really concerned or curious about if their friends have eaten or what they've eaten. It’s just a question that Chinese people ask in order to create a relaxed atmosphere before cutting to the chase. Furthermore, this question reflects Chinese people’s passion about their rich food culture.
Here’s a typical dialogue which uses this question:
- A: 你吃饭了吗?
nǐ chī fàn le ma?
Have you had your lunch/dinner?
- B: 还没, 我现在有点忙。
hái méi, wǒ xiàn zài yǒu diǎn máng.
Not yet, I’m a bit busy at the moment.
你在干嘛? (nǐ zài gàn má?) — What are you doing?
This is a typical question that Chinese people may ask when they are about to start a casual conversation with their friends. Some Chinese learners might think this phrase gives the impression that Chinese people are nosy. However, this is not true.
There are mainly two reasons this question gets asked:
- First of all, Chinese people have a tendency to “beat around the bush” because being too straightforward is not considered courteous in Chinese culture. Hence, people in China ask this question “unconsciously” and treat it as a “stairstep” they can step on in order to move on to whatever it is that they really want to talk about.
- Secondly, Chinese people ask this question to show that they care about their friends. As has been mentioned above, friendship plays a tremendous role in Chinese people’s lives. They are willing to offer help if their friends are in need of something. That in mind, the hidden meaning of this question is “tell me what you’re up to, and I’m here if you need any help.”
你去哪儿? (nǐ qù nǎr?) — Where are you going?
The use of this question to start a conversation is quite similar to that of “你在干嘛 nǐ zài gàn má” — the only difference is that Chinese people usually ask this question when they see someone they know on the street.
When Chinese people ask this question, they don’t really expect to hear a detailed answer as to where exactly you are going. It’s just a way Chinese people alleviate the “awkwardness” of unexpected public encounters with friends or colleagues.
During a conversation
挺好的 (tǐng hǎo de) — Kind of good
In general, Chinese people prefer to express their emotions in a more roundabout way, which means that expressions like “really + adj.” and “extremely + adj.” aren’t as common in Chinese people’s daily conversations. Furthermore, Chinese people have been taught that modesty should be remembered in all occasions, and that they shouldn’t be complacent about what they have achieved. Therefore, when it comes to praising someone or something, Chinese people tend to use words and structures that convey more restrained degrees of emotion.
“挺好的 tǐng hǎo de” means “kind of/pretty good,” and it’s a positive sign that’s a step above “so-so.” It’s a commonly-used phrase that can be heard during a conversation when Chinese people want to express that they’re satisfied with someone or something. For example:
- A: 你的新工作怎么样?
nǐ de xīn gōng zuò zěn me yang?
How is your new job?
- B: 挺好的。
tǐng hǎo de.
Kind of good.
再说 (zài shuō) — Let’s talk about it later
In China, when people are asked to do something in the near future, they often resort to this phrase if they need to think about it. Therefore, it’s very similar to the English phrase “I’ll think about it.” However, if hear “再说 zài shuō” from a person, it doesn’t necessarily mean this person is trying to put you off or to give an ambiguous answer on purpose, as the English phrase does. In many situations, Chinese people simply refrain from giving“precise” answers if they think there is a chance that their plans may change in the future. When Chinese people use this phrase, they really mean that they will get back to you later — once they’ve made a final decision.
On the other hand, many Chinese people wouldn’t feel comfortable directly declining if they didn’t want to do something, and this phrase serves as a little “buffer” — it’s the first step toward politely declining an offer or request.
Let’s take a look at the following example to help you better understand the use of “再说 zài shuō:”
- A: 我们星期六去公园吗?
wǒ men xīng qī liù qù gōng yuán ma?
Are we going to the park on Saturday?
- B: 再说，要看天气。
zài shuō, yào kān tiān qì.
Let’s talk about it later. It depends on the weather.
不客气 (bù kè qì) — You’re welcome
There are several ways to say “you’re welcome” in Chinese, but “不客气 bù kè qì” is the most popular one. “不 bù” means “no,” and “客气 kè qì” means “polite/courteous.” Therefore, whenever someone says “thank you,” Chinese people will answer “不客气 bù kè qì” to express that there is no need to be so courteous/that there is no need to say thank you. Another similar phrase is “别客气 bié kè qì,” the literal meaning of which is “Don’t be so polite.”
These two phrases can be used in any situation when someone is trying to show their appreciation about something. For example:
- A: 谢谢你教我中文。
xiè xiè nǐ jiāo wǒ zhōng wén.
Thank you for teaching me Chinese.
- B: 不客气。
bù kè qì.
Learning Chinese is a marathon rather than a sprint. Of course there are many other typical words and phrases that Chinese people use in their daily lives. However, equally important to learning those words is to gain a deeper understanding of Chinese people’s mindsets and the logic behind their speaking habits. We hope these seven phrases and questions gave you a peek into some of the differences (and similarities!) between Chinese and Western culture.