5 Chinese Phrases To Be More Polite
You might be progressing along nicely in your Mandarin 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 Chinese. 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 Chinese phrases to help you be more polite.
不好意思 (Bù hǎoyìsi – Sorry)
Let’s start with the most common way to say ‘sorry’ in Chinese. This can be used in a variety of situations, similar to English. For example, when you’ve accidentally bumped into someone. Or when you have to change your dinner plans with someone. Or when someone asks you for information, but you don’t know the answer. In such cases, you can say 我不知道, 不好意思 (Wǒ bù zhīdào, bù hǎoyìsi – I don’t know, sorry).
You can also use 对不起 (Duìbùqǐ – Sorry) in these situations. However, 不好意思 (Bù hǎoyìsi) is slightly more common.
让一下 (Ràng yīxià – Excuse me, let me pass)
This is a way to say ‘excuse me’, but only in situations where someone blocks your way. It means ‘let me quickly pass by you’. 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 (Ràng yīxià) by itself is fairly polite, but you can add ‘sorry’ to the end to soften the tone even more: 让一下, 不好意思 (Ràng yīxià, bù hǎoyìsi – Excuse me, let me pass, sorry).
打扰你一下 (Dǎrǎo nǐ yīxià – Sorry to bother you)
打扰你 (Dǎrǎo nǐ) means ‘bother you’ and 一下 (Yīxià) means ‘a moment’. This is a useful polite phrase when you need to ask a stranger a question. Also, when you need to ask someone a question when they’re busy doing something else. For example: 打扰你一下，你知道地铁怎么走吗? (Dǎrǎo nǐ yīxià, nǐ zhīdào dìtiě zěnme zǒu ma? – Sorry to bother you, do you know how to get to the subway?)
麻烦你 (Máfan nǐ – Sorry to trouble you)
This is similar to ‘sorry to bother you’ but is used after asking a favor of someone. For example, if you’ve asked a couple to move to a smaller table in a restaurant so that your party can use the larger table. Or if a stranger has let you borrow their phone to make a call. Or if a restaurant worker is helping you change your order.
Unlike the previous polite phrases, this phrase usually isn’t used while asking something of someone. Instead, it’s often used after the person has agreed to comply with your request.
For example, the restaurant worker says ‘OK, I’ll change the order for you’. You can then say 麻烦你了, 谢谢! (Máfan nǐle, xièxiè! – Sorry to have troubled you, thanks!).
吧 (Ba – Suggestive/lightened tone)
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 走! (Zǒu! – Go!). But this could come across as a bit abrupt. To soften your tone, you can say 走吧! (Zǒu ba! – Let’s go!).
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. For example, if someone asks ‘are tomatoes good for your health?’, you can respond with 是吧 (Shì ba – Yes).
Use these polite phrases everyday!
These 5 phrases will help you sound more polite 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. They 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 Chinese people.
To learn more commonly used phrases, check out our article on 20 common Chinese phrases.