Debating “You’re Welcome”

18 May 2004

One of the first phrases a student of a foreign language learns is “thank you,” followed closely by “you’re welcome.” Every culture has etiquette, and these two phrases are about as basic as etiquette can get. It’s best to keep things simple for a new learner. One-to-one vocabulary correspondences are easiest to accept for memorization.

When I learned Spanish, it was gracias and de nada. When I learned Japanese it was arigatou gozaimasu and dou itashimashite. For Chinese, it was xièxie and bú kèqi.

In English, there are actually a variety of ways to express both “thank you” and “you’re welcome.” I tend to stick with “thanks” and “no problem.” It’s only natural that such variety exist in foreign languages as well, but somehow it seems to cause problems.

Soon after arriving in China, I learned that a lot of the Chinese I learned in the classroom was specific to Beijing, and that it didn’t match what I was hearing around me. I quickly discarded nǎr (“where”) for nǎli, huār (“flower”) for huā, etc. I also started saying bú yòng xiè (literally, “you don’t need to thank me”) for “you’re welcome” instead of bú kèqi.

I used bú yòng xiè almost exclusively for a long time. Then I began to realize that if Chinese people can mix it up, I should have a little more variety in my usage as well. I started using mei guanxi (literally, “it doesn’t matter”) for “you’re welcome.” Pretty soon it had completely replaced bú yòng xiè.

Then there was a short period of time when I switched back to bu keqi (literally, “don’t be polite”), the form of “you’re welcome” I had originally learned. I didn’t stick with that one for long though, because it feels more northern to me and I don’t like that.

I noticed today that I’m using méi guānxi all the time again. I think I want to switch back to bú yòng xiè, it just has the nicest feel to me.

My point is that I can’t seem to be able to “mix it up” like I originally planned. I can switch which form I use, but then I tend to use that one form all the time. Is this actually difficult?? Should I just be content with using one form all the time like I do for the most part in English?

In any case, it’s not a problem. Just one of those little linguistic issues I ponder and probably no one else cares at all about….

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John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.

Comments

  1. hey john, if it’s any comfort, i have been doing the same thing though i’ve only been studying for a little over a year now. personally, i like and use bu yong xie or bu yong xie wo. i guess i like the way that sounds.

  2. There is also the issue of when to say thank you. Some of the teachers at our school have commented that we foreigners say thank you an awful lot. Also one rarely to never says thank you to close friends and family.

  3. It is a rather good observation. The phrase that I first learned was ‘mei you quanxi’, but I do not use it all the time. Why? I suspect it is because evey time I come to that phrase (or any phrase required)I am looking for a vocabulary term and which ever one I stumble upon first is the one that I use. I would venture (and I am no scholar in this matter at all) that in our native language we often resort to some formulaic sequence (such as ‘thanks’ or what have you), but we have the option to be actively engaged in trying to be creative and use something else. In a second language we quite often respond just using the formula (we can change the formula often, that is not necessarily a problem). Why? Because we are attempting to respond quickly and formulaic responses are far quicker than trying to come up with something creative or different from the formula. That may not be the reason, but that would be my guess. As for using the retroflexive ‘er’ at the end of certain words, I still use them and find it rather convenient on occasions. I do not use them as often as people in Beijing use them, but I use them often enough that I have had individuals inquire if I am from Beijing (I do not mean as a native, I just look in the mirror and know no one will confuse me for a native Chinese). Since no one will mistake me for a Chinese, I feel free to use whatever accent mode or whatever that I feel a fancy toward, just so long it gets communicated to the other party. As a sidenote, my mother, although originally from Washington State, her ancestors came from Ohio, and she spoke with a retroflexive ‘r’ which I grew up with. So we always pronounced Washington as if it were Warshington. So I think this retroflex is more common in languages than one would suspect, and because of that, and that only, I am partial to it myself.

  4. How about ‘mei wen ti’, no problem?

  5. hey im from singapore, also asia but not part of china.
    and over here i use ”mei wen ti”, ”bu yao jing”, ”mei guan xi”, ”bu yong xie”
    I guess its literally the same but I usually use ”bu yao jing”.
    it has a singaporean chinese feel to it, you know? =D

  6. Yes, they use “bu yao jin” a lot here too. Also “mei shi.” I don’t hear “mei wenti” very much.

    But I don’t really use those.

  7. One thing about the “mixing it up” that occurs in English is that different phrases seem to get used in different context. For instance I usually say “thank you” or “thanks” and “you’re welcome,” but for some reason I say “no prob” to more often to my sister, “no problem” regularly to some friends, and if I’m joking I may break out with “thanks a bunch” and “no big deal” or even “no biggy.”

    Perhaps in a second language, where as you mention simpler means easier, a kind of variety can be achieved by making a conscious effort to choose certain situations in which to use certain phrases.

  8. there are some subtle differences though. Mei guanxi sounds more like a response to “i’m sorry” as much as “thank you”. I think it might be odd for a native speaker to say that in response to “thank you.” “Bu yongxie” is definitely more formal than “bu keqi”.

    In English too. “You are welcome” is a formal reply. Sometimes if you did something (As in shopping), when you thank the cashier/store owner, he thanks you too for buying his stuff. “No problem” is a less standard reply. Nod is a reply that is frequent. As is a “uh-huh”.

    I think you don’t necessarily have to “mix it up” as much as use it at places where you really want to.

  9. In English, I tend just to say “sure.” In Chinese, I either say ‘mei guanxi’ or ‘beng xie,’ but it kind of depends on context.

    ‘Bu yao jin’ is about the only thing I actually liked about the Chinese they speak down around your way.

  10. I think that if I know the person, I usually default to whatever they usually use to deflect thanks, i.e. if they say “bu yong xie” I say “bu yong xie”. In a casual situation I usually use “mei shi” as its short and seems more natural and relaxed. I use “mei guan xi” for a more formal situation as it seems more genuine, yet still somewhat comfortable. I rarely use “bu ke qi” because I find it too often appears to me come off in a curt manner, or as a lame and feigned attempt at showing respect. As my tendencies aren’t really based on anything but my own gut feeling, I could be hopelessly and completely wrong.
    Interesting post nonetheless.

  11. Or can use the response which I have been (jokingly) teaching my students since 1999:

    Student: Thank You (Spoken: “Thank Q”)

    Response: Bu Yong Q ? 

    Thousands of my old students use that now.

    (?  Chuck@China, 1999)

  12. Correct me if I’m wrong, but using “mei wenti” (no problem) as a response for “thank you” comes from Hong Kong/Canton area which was heavily influenced by English. I remember using it Beijing a few times, and I always got weird looks… But now that I think about it I rarely heard the Cantonese form “Mo mon tai” used when I was down in Hong Kong mostly “Mm sai” or the more formal “Mm sai hat hey.”

    Anyway, I think on the mainland, “mei wen ti” is rarely used, and seems like it comes from English…

  13. Tonight when my waitress, here in Xuzhou, was having a really hard time lighting my irish coffee…like it took her to the fourth try to get it right…so when it finally worked i said “fei chang duo xie” ah…we had a good laugh at that 😉 but normally i just use “xie xie”

  14. My teacher of Chinese (Belgian like me) used to tell me that (unlike in Dutch and I think English), in Chinese context really makes a difference when saying ‘thank you’.

    According to him, at formal occasions and to strangers you say ‘xiexie’ or one of its variants.

    Among relatives and close friends you say ‘hao a’ or one of its variants.

    I never really practised this piecelet of knowledge though. Guess I never got close enough to any native speakers of Chinese 🙁

  15. i always thought it’s kinda weird how americans would say “thank you” back when you say “thank you” all the time. it doesn’t really make sense but i’m used to it and am doing it myself sometimes.

  16. Saying “thank you” in reply to a “thank you” makes great sense. It is the second person telling the first that it is that first person who did the action that should have been thanked. Students would thank a teacher for teaching and the teacher thank them for coming. The powerful double thank.

    I guess most of the above replies to the old “xie xie” are fine when in a rush. Some are more appropriate, in certain situations, than others but most often just about anything will do.

    Harder it is to say “xie xie” at the right time. It seems that any transaction involving money does not need it. “Why thank me when you paid the cash?”

  17. Yeah I like to mix in a little Beng xie now and again.

    I can’t say I’ve had trouble mixing things up though. At least not that phrase anyway.

  18. Adam,

    Perhaps I didn’t explain clearly.

    It’s not a matter of confusing phrases. There may be subtle differences, but the phrases are basically interchangeable anyway. Chinese people are never going to say, “why did he say ‘bu keqi’ instead of ‘mei guanxi?’ How strange!”

    I just meant that I tend to just stick to one phrase as a kind of unconscious communication simplification device, I guess.

    When I said “mix it up” I meant “spice it up,” “add variation.” (Come on, all the youngsters are saying it! 🙂 )

  19. Hey John,
    I remember you introduced a web site, which is good for the Chinese students to learn English, about late last year. But I don’t remember the address of that web site and I don’t know how to find it.Could you please tell me the address? Thanks a lot!

  20. nishishei Says: May 20, 2004 at 8:34 am

    Shanghainese lesson of the day:

    勿要谢 vyo ja. Like French j (j’ai). Must be said with a happy tone. Not 勿要谢!!!
    没关系 maq kueshi.
    勿要客气 vyo khatchi.
    没事体俄 maq zithi e.

  21. nishishei,

    what does it mean if you say ÎðҪл in a non-happy tone?

  22. john m. glionna Says: June 7, 2004 at 6:53 pm

    John, I’m a reporter in Beijing for the Los Angeles Times, and I’m researching a story on Mark Rowswell, a.k.a. DaShan. I was wondering if you could e-mail at the above address with a contact number. i’d like to do a brief interview about DaShan critics among westerners living in China. Would you have time? Thanks. I am interviewing Mark on Tuesday and wanted to talk to you before I did so. I would also like to get a copy of your comments that prompted his email to you. Thanks man. John M. Glionna.

  23. Mei shaar.

    I don’t know how exactly you’d pronounce it, but it’s more of a Beijing accent going in the -ar. It’s the Beijing-ized version of “mei shi”. I don’t hear it often but it’s accepted– I guess it’s more of a hick/country thing.

  24. Mei Shir (pronounced “May shar”) is very close to the flavor of the American “no sweat”– and as such is informal and should be used when that’s appropriate. For a light touch, we sometimes say “Bu Keq”, leaving off the final vowel sound of “Bu keqi” which itself is sort for “Bu Yao Keqi”. This invariably prompts a laugh. Again, it’s a phrase we use when an informal tone is appropriate.
    “Bu Yong Xie” is pretty formal, but to take the edge off while still showing sufficient respect, it seems perfectly acceptable to say “Bu Xie”– taking care not to mess up the tones and wind us saying “cotton shoes” instead of “no thanks needed”.
    As an aside, I’d like to point out that it’s so easy to put your foot in it here that erring on the side of excess in the matter of courtesy is probably a good idea. After coming here on and off for 12 years, with an aggregate of more than five years spent in the Middle Kingdom, I still manage to find new ways to mess up, but find that a smile and a clear attempt at being polite always overcomes the unintended faux pas.

  25. Mike Jamiolkowski Says: April 21, 2005 at 12:38 am

    No problem is NOT the same as Your Welcome. No Problem means that a problem could have occurred during the process but did not. Or it could mean that a problem was encountered but I choose not to interfer with getting the job done.
    Your Welcome is ALWAYS the correct reply to Thank you while No Problem is not always the correct response.

    • George Boyce Says: August 27, 2010 at 9:49 pm

      Argh.

      Your Welcome is ALWAYS the correct reply to Thank you

      The word you are looking for is “you’re”. As in:

      You’re Welcome.

  26. “No problem” is the same as “Don’t mention it”. It means “no need to thank me. It was no problem.” I dont know what the poster above me is talking about..

    “a problem could have occurred during the process but did not.” ” Or it could mean that a problem was encountered but I choose not to interfer with getting the job done.” putting WAY too much thought into it 😉

  27. “Not a problem” as a reply to Thank You has seem to grown among younger people. I find it rude. Why have young people replaced “your welcome” with “not a problem”. Not a problem implies that you could be a problem. I would like to see a move to go back to “your welcome”

  28. Every time I hear someone respond “no problem” as a response to “thank you,” it elicits the same response in me as the high-pitched sound of squeaky chalk on a blackboard. I find it very annoying — particularly from people whose job it is to provide a service. Of course it shouldn’t be a problem — it’s your job. Whenever I hear that response, I “chalk it up” to the person’s lack of proper manners. I have no idea where that response originated, but regardless of where it originated, it should be deleted from one’s vocabulary as a response to someone’s mannerly “thank you.” A response of “no problem” is a sign that you have “no class.”

  29. Stranger Says: April 7, 2009 at 6:06 pm

    Thanks for this page. I got all the info I needed from the actuall post + from the comments. Internet showed its power once again! 😉 XieXie

  30. This is all very interesting. I would think in English, that one says “no problem” to a thankyou to something you DID, a chore, an action. I wash your car, or I bring your lunch to work for you, and you say thankyou, and I say “no problem”… ie I am saying it didn’t put me out to do it, it was a pleasure to do it for you. (A nicer way would be “my pleasure”). If someone says “thankyou” for a wonderful time, or for hosting a dinner, “you’re welcome” makes more sense… they have welcomed you, are welcoming you. Thoughtful gifts would be in this category too. They are done to welcome you. If someone says “thankyou for adopting a boy from our Chinese orphanage” (which I did by the way), “no problem” or “you’re welcome” are inappropriate… they make it seem as though it was something of a chore to adopt him, that they owe me for. I am more likely to say, “No, thank YOU” as I feel the thanks should be mine to give.

    Now I’d like to see some of that similar in this discussion about Chinese. I would suspect that “bu yong xie” means that … there is no need to thank… I have gone out of my way for you, but I would have felt remiss not to. Mei guanxi… no problem, I would think more like “no problem” as in I did something for you. Bu keqi, more for someone who is being very polite, ie being so thankful for you inviting them to tea or for a beer or something… “no need to act like a guest” is what it means… And that makes PERFECT sense if you want to make someone feel welcome (as the host, a friend etc) if close friends and family in China don’t thank each other a lot… thanking someone for ordinary niceties or inclusion would be the manners of a guest.

    Interesting. The regional variations are interesting to.

  31. brittany Says: July 31, 2011 at 6:47 am

    After spending some time in Taiwan I’ve gotten in the habit of saying 不會 instead if 不客氣. When I noticed I was just saying that and nothing else, I made more of an effort to mix it up a bit. My Chinese roommate sometimes said 沒事兒, but never 不會.

  32. I really love the 不會 used in Taiwan, but I suppose it isn’t very common on the Mainland.

    I’ve also thought about varying common phrases such as “you’re welcome”, and the only thing I’ve found helpful is to deliberately use one version for a while, then switch to another (and then switch to a third). After that, I can usually use the different versions without too much trouble. However, this doesn’t seem to solve your problem since you’ve already done this.

    This is just a thought, but perhaps you could link one way of replying to one way of saying thank you? I mean, there are many different ways of saying “thank you”, too, so each time someone says “謝謝“, you go “不會“, but when someone says “感謝你“ you say something else, such as “不客氣“. This is of course only necessary if you really think this is a problem. 🙂

  33. I use “不谢”, mostly because it’s shorter and because I’m lazy.

  34. No problem is a lot like de nada “[it’s] nothing”
    Or ce n’est rien or ill n’y a pas de quoi.
    Aas such, no problem seems quite a universal
    Approach and mei wen ti or mei guang xi should be fine in Chinese. I’m not chinese but I work with several Chinese people who all speak 3 dlealects.

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