You might be progressing along nicely in your Chinese learning. You might also be one of the kindest foreigners to ever walk the streets of China! Yet, verbal courtesy in your culture may not translate directly into Mandarin, and learning a few key phrases can be very useful for displaying to your Chinese friends the true warmth in your heart. Here are 5 simple Mandarin phrases to help you be more polite.
1. Sorry – 不好意思 – Bù hǎo yì si
Of course, we need to start with the most common way to say “Sorry” in Chinese. This can be used in a variety of situations, similarly to English:
- You’ve accidentally bumped into someone
- You have to change your dinner plans with someone
- Someone asks you for information, but you don’t know the answer
- “Wǒ bù zhī dào, bù hǎo yì si。”
- “I don’t know, sorry.”
You can also express these meanings using 对不起 （Duì bu qǐ）, however 不好意思 is slightly more common.
2. Excuse Me (Let me pass) – 让一下 – Ràng yī xià
Ràng yī xià is a way to say “Excuse me” but only in situations where someone blocks your way. It means “Let me pass by you real quick.” You wouldn’t use this to express you’re sorry for accidentally bumping into someone. But it would be useful when you’re on an elevator and you need to move through a crowded space to exit.
“让一下” by itself is fairly polite, but you can add “Sorry” to the end to soften the tone even more:
- “Ràng yī xià，bù hǎo yì si。“
3. Sorry to Bother You – 打扰你一下 – Dǎ rǎo nǐ yī xià
打扰你 (Dǎ rǎo nǐ) means “bother you” and 一下 (yī xià) means “a moment.” This is a useful phrase when:
- You need to ask a stranger a question
- You need to ask an acquaintance a question when they’re already busy doing something else
- “Dǎ rǎo nǐ yī xià, nǐ zhī dào dì tiě zěn me zǒu ma?”
- “Sorry to bother you, do you know how to get to the subway?”
4. Sorry to Trouble You – 麻烦你 – Má fan nǐ
This is similar to “Sorry to Bother You” but is used after asking a favour of someone:
- You have asked a couple to move to a smaller table at the restaurant so your party can use the larger table.
- A stranger has let you borrow their phone to make a call
- A restaurant worker is helping you change your order
Unlike the previous phrases, 麻烦你（Má fan nǐ）usually isn’t used while asking something of someone. Instead, it’s often used after the person has agreed to comply to your request.
For example, the restaurant worker says “Ok, I’ll change the order for you.” You can say:
- “Má fan nǐ, xiè xiè!”
- “Sorry to trouble you, thanks!”
5. Suggestive/Lightened Tone – 吧 – Ba
This structure isn’t a phrase, but it’s incredibly useful for expressing yourself more politely! 吧 (ba) is added to the end of a statement to sound less commanding, and more suggestive. It’s similar to the use of the English “Let’s…” or “How about we…”
If you wanted to tell someone it’s time to go, you might say:
But this could come across a bit impatient. To add friendliness to your tone, you can say:
- Zǒu ba！
It can also be used to show that you’re not 100% certain, or to not come across as a know-it-all. If someone asks you a question, you can respond with a 吧 at the end of your response to show a little humility.
“Are tomatoes good for your health?”
- “Shì ba.”
- “Yes (lightened tone).”
These 5 Mandarin phrases will help you glisten with courtesy as you speak Chinese. But even if you forget to use them, not to worry! Chinese people are generally very forgiving toward foreigners with beginner language ability and won’t judge you as they would the manners of a fellow Chinese. Nevertheless, learning small bits of Chinese culture can go a long way in earning the favour of the people of China.
To learn more commonly used phrases, check out our article on 20 common Chinese phrases.