Ling (aka Katherine) is a Teacher, YouTuber, Author, and Founder of LingLing Mandarin. She has a Master's in Communication and Language.
If you have just started your journey in learning Chinese, firstly I would like to say welcome and congratulations—it's sure to be an exciting and fulfilling one! There is a good chance you may have already learned or been told that the way to say “hello” or “how are you” in Mandarin Chinese is “你好” (nǐ hǎo) or “你好吗” (nǐ hǎo ma) which literally translates to: “You good?”
你 (Nǐ) = you
好 (hǎo) = good
吗 (ma) = question particle (i.e. indicates a question)
Chinese people never greet their close friends, siblings, or parents with 你好.
While this is certainly one way to greet someone in Mandarin Chinese, it is not the only way and, in fact, in some cases may not really be appropriate at all! Chinese people never greet their close friends, siblings, or parents with 你好. If they did, it might indicate something wrong in their relationship.
But do not fear if you have been using this to greet everyone you meet, you are not alone. Even many advanced students probably still overuse this phrase. The reality is that you have likely done no real harm in using it. I'm here to help you now though and I will show you how to sound like a native!
Society of Connections and Guānxì
One very important aspect of speaking Chinese, or indeed any language, is understanding the culture of the country you are in and applying it to the way in which you speak and the words which you chose. Chinese society is known as “关系社会” (guānxì shèhuì) or a “Society of Connections” and the way in which we talk to one and address one another strongly depends on the nature of our relationship with the person.
关系 (guān xì) = relationship/connections
社会 (shè huì) = society
关系 (guān xì) is an important topic in Chinese society, and an awareness of it is essential to successfully communicate and navigate through the many areas of Chinese culture where it has a heavy influence. For those of you who are interested in doing business in China, understanding guānxì is essential. But it is a complex multifaceted topic that deserves a dedicated focus and so I will not go into it now. As you learn and communicate more with Chinese people you will inevitably start picking up on certain behaviour and ways of speaking which may at first seem odd to you, but do not worry you will eventually start to grow an instinctive understanding of this aspect of culture.
But do not worry, I am here to show how you can greet like a native no matter who you are talking to. I will give you 12 ways to greet people depending on your relationship.
People fall into one of two ‘relational’ groups:
- Non-distant or familiar
Those in the ‘distant’ group include people such as your superiors at work, teachers, those you are not familiar with, or anyone you wish to show more respect to. Whereas your friends, family, and neighbours will most likely fall into the ‘familiar/non-distant’ group.
Greetings for Distant Group
Here's a quick look at a few greetings you can use for people who you are not very close with.
1. 你好 / 你好吗 – Hello / How are you?
This is the one you probably know already and we have talked about but it is still appropriate to use with people in this group. You may even opt for the formal version of "you", 您 (nín), in some circumstances if you wish to show extra respect.
2. 早上好 (zǎo shang hǎo) – Good Morning
早上 (zǎoshang) – morning
3. 下午好 (xià wǔ hǎo) – Good Afternoon
下午 (xiàwǔ) - afternoon
4. 晚上好 (wǎn shàng hǎo) – Good Evening
晚上 (wǎnshàng) – evening
Greetings for Familiar/Non-Distant Group
Now here's a look at some greetings to use with people you're more familiar with.
5. 嗨 (Hāi) – Hi!
Familiar sounding and simple enough for most English speakers. This is really just transliteration of the word “hi” into Chinese.
6. 吃了吗 (chī le ma?) – Have you eaten?
吃 (chī) - to eat
了 (le) - indicates a completed action in this context
吗 (ma) - question particle (i.e. indicates a question)
By asking this, it does not actually mean that you are about to offer them dinner and they may not necessarily respond with whether they have actually eaten a meal or not. A typical response would just be “吃了” (chī le) literally meaning “[I have] eaten”.
As in English, it is normal for people to say, “how are you” and respond with “fine” (regardless of whether it is true), in Chinese “吃了吗” is often just used to greet people as if to say, “how are you” and generally the expected response is just “吃了” with the conversation then typically turning to a different subject.
7. 好久不见 (hǎo jiǔ bù jiàn) – Long time, no see!
好久 – long time
不 – no
见 – to see
Clearly, you would be unlikely to use this if you had just seen the person in question a few hours ago, except ironically. But this is a very common way to greet a friend you have not seen for a while and the meaning is and usage is the same as saying “long time no see” in English.
8. 最近怎么样 (zuì jìn zěn me yàng) – How are you recently?
最近 (zuìjìn）– recently
怎么样 (zěnme yàng）– how are things?
“最近怎么样” or just “你怎么样” (nǐ zěn me yang) is typically a question that expects a more specific response, perhaps regarding some event or issue that has come up recently. It is similar to “你好吗” in that it basically means “how are you” but you’d use it with someone with who you are more familiar.
Some examples of appropriate responses would be “我感冒了” (wǒ gǎn mào le) if you’ve caught a cold or “我升职了” (wǒ shēng zhí le) if you got a promotion.
9. 你在忙什么 (nǐ zài máng shén me) – What are you up to?
忙 (máng) – busy
什么 (shén me) – what
More literally “你在忙什么” means “what are you busy doing?” It is a common way to greet someone you know and start up a conversation.
10. 你在干嘛 (nǐ zài gàn ma) – What are you up to?
干嘛 (gàn ma) – this is another way to say “what” or “why”
“你在干嘛” is similar to the “你在忙什么” and is really just a way to start a conversation by asking what someone is doing.
11. 嘿，你去哪儿 (hēi, nǐ qù nǎ'er) – Hey, where are you going?
黑 (hēi）– hey! transliteration of the English word “hey”
去 (qù) – to go
哪儿 (nǎ'er) – where?
Obviously, this is one you are most likely to use when you see a friend on their way somewhere.
12. 喂 (wèi) – Hi (answering a phone call)
I guarantee you that you will hear this one all the time in China. People are on their phones a lot and this is by far the most common way to answer a phone call in Chinese. It may be followed by “你好” in the case where you don’t know who is calling, for example (or if you would typically greet the person calling this way) or perhaps by the person’s name if it is someone you are familiar with.
Even More Ways to Greet People
Another common way of casually greeting people that you know, particularly if you are not planning on having a conversation with them, is to comment on something which is contextually appropriate, for example, the time of day, someone or something with them, or the direction they are heading. If you see your neighbour arriving home in the evening you could simply say “下班了” (xià bān le) which literally means “off work” or maybe the opposite in the morning “上班了” (shàng bān le), literally “on work”, so you are saying “hi” but in a contextualised way, this type of greeting is not likely to trigger a full-blown conversation, it is more of a “nod and wave” way to greet someone. Similarly, if you see someone you know with bags of groceries then you might comment “买菜了” (mǎi cài le) which literally translates to “bought vegetables” or in other words “You bought groceries!” Again, you are acknowledging the person rather than starting a conversation.
One more way to greet people is by their title and/or name. For example, you might greet your teacher saying “老师好” (lǎoshī hǎo）rather than just 你好, or you might address them directly if you are about to ask a question, for example with their title and name together, e.g., if your teacher’s family name is Wang (王) then you would say “王老师” – “Teacher Wang”. Or if you are about to get into a taxi, then you might first address the driver by saying “师傅好” (shī fù hǎo) or “师傅你好” (shī fù nǐ hǎo). 师傅 is often used to address workers such as drivers, security guards, chefs, etc. The use of such titles to address people in China is very common.
Greet Like a Native
There are many ways to greet people in Chinese, if you have the opportunity to spend time in China then pay attention to how natives greet each other and get the attention of others in different aspects of daily life and you will very quickly learn appropriate ways to greet various types of people.
In the meantime, go and try some of the suggested ways to greet people, of course being mindful of who you are talking to. If you have any Chinese or Chinese speaking friends, then that is a great opportunity to practice and impress them with your native sounding greetings and why not send me your greetings over in the comments or over on my YouTube channel.
© 2021 Katherine Ling