There are a number of different ways to greet people and say hello in Chinese, and some of them aren't very frequently taught in textbooks. In this post I want to go through some of the most authentic and natural ways to greet people in Mandarin, that you can use in different situations.
Different greetings and phrases for 'hello'
你好 nǐ hǎo is the standard 'hello'. 你 nǐ means 'you' and 好 hǎo means 'good'.
If you are speaking to somebody who is much older than you, or you are meeting somebody for the first time in a business situation, you should use 您好 nín hǎo.
您 nín is a formal word for you, almost like vous in French or usted in Spanish, and 好 hǎo means 'good'.
To say hello to a group of people (more than one person), you use 你们 nǐmen hǎo. (nǐmen is the word for you when you are referring to more than one person).
早上好 zǎoshàng hǎo means 'good morning', and a nice colloquial way to put it is to simply say zǎo. This is very common and you'll sound very Chinese if you use it!
晚上好 wǎnshàng hǎo is 'good evening', but be careful, you can't abbreviate this to just 晚 wǎn!
If you are speaking to a close friend who you know well, you don't have to use such 'standard' phrases. You could say for example 怎么样 zěnme yàng, which means 'How are you doing? '
Greeting people more like a native by not saying 'hello' at all.
Although Chinese people do use 你好 a lot, there are also a number of other ways to greet people that don't require you to use a standard greeting at all. They're not taught so often in classes and textbooks, but you'll here them all the time.
For example, if you are greeting somebody you see quite often and they come in the door, or if they've come back from a trip or an event, you could say 回来了 huílai le? 'You've come back'.
It might seem more like an observation than a greeting, but it's a very natural way to start a conversation with somebody you know well.
Another phrase you can use is 去哪儿 qù nǎr? or 去哪里 qù nǎli, which means 'Where are you going?' or 'Where are you off to?' It might sound a bit nosey, but in Chinese, it's really just a way of making conversation, showing concern about somebody's affairs, and starting a conversation.
Try it next time you come across a Chinese friend.
Asking somebody how they're doing
The way to ask 'how are you?' that is normally taught in textbooks is 你好吗 nǐ hǎo ma?, which literally means 'are you OK?'. You do hear this in China, but there are other more colloquial ways to ask after somebody that you can also use.
Common phrases include 最近忙吗 zuìjìn máng ma? 'Been busy recently?' or 最近还好吗 zuìjìn hái hǎo ma? 'Have you been ok recently?'
Asking somebody whether they have eaten
You might have heard that in China, it's common to ask after somebody by asking whether they have eaten yet, for example by saying 吃饭了吗 chī fàn le ma? 'Have you eaten?', and many people have been taught that this is a way of saying 'hello'.
It is true that people often use phrases like this when they see somebody they are familiar with, but it's not the case that it means hello. In fact, it's more a cultural habit to start a conversation in this way to show concern for the other person, and it's a common opener that you can use too.
吃饭了吗 chī fàn le ma? simply means 'Have you eaten?'.
If it is the morning, you could say 吃早饭了吗 chī zǎofàn le ma? 'Have you had breakfast'?
During the afternoon, you could say 吃午饭了吗 chī wǔfàn le ma? 'Have you had lunch'?
Learning Chinese is not just about picking up a new set of words and phrases, it's also about understanding and adapting to a different culture. Give these phrases a try to start off your conversations in Chinese. Just by using a few more 'natural phrases', you'll start to sound more like a local and less like you're speaking 'textbook Chinese', and you'll be making the first step in the cultural transition!
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