A Greeting with Training Wheels

How do you ask “how are you?” in Chinese? Most textbooks or other study materials include the classic greeting 你好吗? (“how are you?”) right in the first lesson. From a course creation perspective, this greeting is great. It builds on the universal greeting 你好 (“hello”) by just adding one word, plus it allows an opportunity to teach the very basic grammar pattern of using the question particle to create yes/no questions. It’s also very easy to answer, and the classic response 我很好 (“I’m fine”) reinforces (1) the basic “N + Adj” sentence pattern in Chinese, as well as (2) using only super basic, core vocabulary.

So what’s the problem?

Training wheels: ni hao ma?

Well, Chinese educators’ dirty little secret is that Chinese people themselves rarely use the greeting 你好吗? with each other. Some people will tell you this expression actually evolved out of a perceived need for Chinese greetings to more closely resemble western ones, which might be easier for westerners to learn. I’m not sure how much truth there is to this theory, but based on years of observation, I can confirm what many others have also observed: that native speakers very rarely use 你好吗? with each other.

When I first learned this “dirty little secret,” I was quite indignant. Why would you teach learners something that no one ever says? It’s irresponsible and lazy. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time that educators underestimated the intellect of the learners. And it does seem that many Chinese educators continue to feel that it’s a good idea to teach 你好吗? to beginners (perhaps for the reasons listed above). So in my work at ChinesePod over the years, I’ve tended to avoid 你好吗? as much as possible.

But over time, I’ve noticed another thing. Chinese people do say 你好吗? to foreigners. They’re especially likely to use it with foreigners when they know the foreigner knows very little Chinese, or if they suspect as much and are just testing the waters. (It can also be used as a barb in a language power struggle, as in, “OK, if you insist, I’ll speak Chinese with you… 你好吗?“)

So what’s going on? Are these Chinese speakers being racist jerks? Are they thinking, “this learner can’t possibly handle more than this”?

For those embittered by too many language power struggles, it might be tempting to think this way. But for most cases, I don’t think this is the case. When I reflect on my own English interactions in China, I can find similar situations in English. Take this fabricated dialog for example, which I’m almost sure I have acted out in real life several times in the past:

Me: Hi, how’s it going?

Student: [confused] Going?

Me: Hello, how are you?

Student: [visibly brightening] Fine, thank you. And you?

Me: I’m great.

Now, if this were my own student, I’d quickly teach him the way Americans actually greet each other nowadays, covering all the basic “how” and “what” informal greetings. But if it were just a very short conversation with someone who doesn’t really want to learn real English anyway, then “Hello, how are you” served its purpose.

This is why I now view the 你好吗? phenomenon as a sort of linguistic training wheels. It’s something you learn early on, and then try to move away from as quickly as possible. Key to the equation (and the reason why I no longer consider the prevalence of 你好吗? in Chinese textbooks to be a total blight on the entire industry) is the fact that Chinese native speakers will sometimes use it with learners. This is a fact that can’t be denied. But any serious learner won’t be using the training wheels for long (if he ever did at all), and will soon leave 你好吗? far behind.

41 Comments to “A Greeting with Training Wheels

  1. Brendan says:

    Nice. Now if we can just get textbooks to stop teaching people 认识您很高兴 and start teaching 幸会…

    • Ha! I feel like I hear Chinese people using that with each other even more than 你好吗 though.

      Personally, I found it hard to ever use that expresssion because saying it in a foreign language, it just felt way more fake and empty than “nice to meet you.” In some cases, I might as well be saying, “OK, are we through here? Can I move on and forget you now?”

      (Meanwhile, students around the world are agonizing over whether it’s better to say 认识你很高兴 or 很高兴认识你.)

    • Mark says:

      Thanks for 幸会, I always felt awkward saying 认识您很高兴 because i actually never heard a Chinese person say that to me (or maybe they weren’t pleased to meet me :P)

      I always use 你好吗 to get my Ayi to laugh :)

    • Tom says:

      So would you say “幸会认识您”? – Or is there a better way to construct this?

    • Anon says:

      Keep in mind that 幸会 is quite formal.

      • Dan says:

        You just don’t really need to say anything. I’ve had some people tell me “很高興認識你“ before, but usually just no one says anything.

  2. Jorge says:

    John, I met a Chinese lady from Jiangsu province a few days ago at a bookstore. I asked her about this greeting “ni hao ma?” since I had heard Jenny (ChinesePod) make the same claim. The lady from Jiangsu said they in fact do use that greeting when they are making casual talk. My guess is that China is too large of a country (in terms of population) to expect any single greeting to stick.

    • Keep asking people. I’m sure you’ll get a wide variety of responses.

      Keep in mind, though, that you can never totally trust a native speaker… Empirical observation is best.

  3. Syz says:

    I’m all in favor of more nails in the 你好吗 coffin. Nice post. (Per Jorge’s comment, though, I’ve heard a few people say it exists in parts of China I haven’t been to)

    For those outside of China, it might be worth mentioning that 你好 is alive and well, just that it doesn’t mean what language learners are usually taught it means.

    A while back there was this article in the Journal of Asian Studies that talked about the role of 你好 changing along with Chinese society.

  4. Here in Malaysia it is common for Chinese friends to greet each other with the abbreviated 好吗? 你好吗? is reserved for more formal occasions or with strangers.

  5. kimiik says:

    In the US everyone learning french knows at a very early stage the expression “comme ci comme ça” which, in fact, is never used in France (except to make fun of the american students of course).

  6. Onno says:

    thank you for that post! so, but how do Chinese people ask each other how they are? I think I remember 你(最近)怎么样? Is this right? What else could I say? thank you!

  7. I have the same problem when speaking English to Chinese people. Even slight deviation from the standard “How are you” results in massive confusion. My standard greeting for other Americans is “What’s up?” and this REALLY confuses the Chinese folk :) “Up?” Huh?

  8. ze says:

    I’ve observed native speakers using ‘Nǐ hǎo ma?’ with one another, but in situations where the asking party knew that the askee had recently NOT been good, or had been ill. Pragmatically, it seemed to be a polite way to inquire after someone’s (poor) health. Very anecdotal. I’m curious if anyone else has noted something similar.

    • Diane says:

      Ze, I think so, too. I heard it used to check on a friend after they tripped on the sidewalk tiles, me being that friend most of the time!

  9. Becky says:

    I love freaking out my students by asking, “so, what’s new?” At first I was surprised by how freaked out and confused they got, I mean, put the words together and it makes sense (unlike “what’s up,” which makes no sense). But it really throws them for a loop!

    So for personal experience, I think mine matches with yours John. The only person Chinese person I have really noticed saying “你好吗” is a street seller in Hangzhou. He totally does it to “test the waters,” like you said and when the foreigner answer in Chinese he visibly brightens and starts talking in earnest. If you answer in English, then he starts his chinglish spiel.”Good price for you, very nice quality.”

    Like ze said, I was always told that you only ask 你好吗 if you really want to know how the person is doing, like, when you want to have a deeper discussion because you know they have had some problems recently. But I’ve never observed this personally.

  10. Alan Park says:

    John,

    Great post! I know exactly what you mean! Makes me think of when I first got to China, and I was totally unprepared for “你吃饭了吗?” My response – “对不起,我已经吃了!” And then ensued an awkward moment as they explained to me that they didn’t actually want to eat with me…

  11. Ben says:

    Nice post, I fully agree. It seems that a slow and pronounced “ni hao ma” is often used by Chinese as a test balloon whether their Western opponent is at all capable of hearing and speaking.

    Unrelatedly, “leih hou ma” seems so be somewhat more common in Hong Kong.

    What I really wanted to ask: John, a couple of years ago, you wrote a piece on what what Chinese consider acceptable of turning in, e.g. as a project result. There were some stages (expressed in percentages) at which judgements like “could do”, “pretty good” and “perfect” were made. I can’t seem to find it, but don’t really know what to search for either. Do you know what I mean and could you point me towards it? Much appreciated.

  12. imron says:

    I agree with ze. Not only have I heard it used several times in this context, but also if for example someone has recently lost a friend or relative.

    I have also heard it used by Chinese in a situation where they meet someone they haven’t seen in a long time (e.g. maybe one, or even several years) and they’re enquiring about how that person’s life has been during that period.

  13. @Onno, you are right. Here in Malaysia, we Chinese do sometimes greet each other by saying 你最近怎(么)样? but only with those who are close friends or we are familiar with. Otherwise with strangers we are likely to say 你好吗?

  14. Tina says:

    From my taiji teacher, I was taught, “吃了吗? which apparently goes back to time when food was scarce.

  15. scoff says:

    I am also on board with what ze and imron posted and would only add that much of the meaning seems to be in the way it’s said. When I’ve heard Chinese use 你好吗 to ask after someone’s health there has almost almost been a very slight pause between the 好 and the 吗. It sounded nothing like what I was taught in “Chinese 101.”

  16. batu says:

    你好吗 : training wheels for learners. Yeah, that’s a great metaphor, i agree on that. After reading your post now i realized when i had started learning chinese, i was frequently using that “training wheels” and the response i got from my teacher was always an acted, pretended one. She was saying: “我很好,你呢?” in a very slow and pretended way. I never heard my teachers greeting one another using that phrase and i assure you i’m a kind of stalker when it comes to chinese, watch chinese people to see how they speak, how they use the words i study and how they pronounce them. I rarely heard them saying 你好吗 and even if they did, they did it in an acting way to the students or joked imitating basic level students.

    Well, i think i’m more of a 你怎么样 or 你怎么呢 kind of person though i sometimes use 你吃了没有 to make my chinese friends laugh:p

  17. Diane says:

    Great post! I recently put together a beginning-level course and thought about several of these issues. But putting in 你好吗? into ch. 1 won out for the reasons above. It was so nice to see them discover & understand how to use 吗,and then other particles, all because of the beginning in 你好吗。 We even pretended to make English questions by adding 吗 to English sentences to help solidify the 吗 concept. It’s a 5th grade class. If I were teaching high schoolers, it’d be different.

  18. Chelsey says:

    “你好吗? 很高兴认识你。” are English Chinese.

  19. I noticed that “ni hao” is used as well for calling someone’s attention, like “Nihao! Fuwuyuan!”.

  20. Dillon says:

    Nice article. I’ve been learning Chinese for about 6 years now and I’ve never even used 你好吗 in a serious conversation. It just sounds unnatural to me. I’ve always been partial to things like 今天怎么样? or 吃了吗?

    Well, this post just gives me another reason not to use it. Hurray! :)

  21. I think everybody should read a post over at Albert’s Laowai Chinese that deals with 你好 as a greeting. Do also read the comments, because lots of people (including native speakers) have had their say. In short, it seems like 你好 is indeed used even when foreigners are not involved, but it differs between different people and different places.

    http://laowaichinese.net/n%c7%90-h%c7%8eo-%e4%bd%a0%e5%a5%bd-a-very-fake-greeting.htm

  22. 尚德Nathan says:

    你好吗? Is much closer to How are you holding up? then How are you? Drives me crazy that they put that in the textbooks. I have been using 干嘛? as a greeting lately – especially on the phone. Why don’t they use that instead? Probably too informal. I don’t think you need to oversimplify things to make them understandable. When I used to teach What’s up? in class they would understand immediately. What’s up? = Hello. Done. Not rocket science.

    • Dan says:

      I think “幹嘛“is too much like “wtf”, if someone is annoying you. It’s not really applicable in situations where you just want to say “hey, how’s it going”. But I guess you can say 最近都在幹嘛?

  23. Same with 《怎么样》. Many foreigners could great Chinese with this phrase 《怎么样?》

    — 【confused】什么《怎么样》??!!

    I think “zenme yang” should be more detailed, like 《[你]过得怎么样?》 or something like that.

  24. Abbey says:

    Hello,

    I think greetings like "how are you" is rarely used in Asia. Well it is sometime used but not as primary greetings. I would rather suggest a simple Hi, Hello, Good morning, Good day.
    

  25. Xixia Ye says:

    你好 is formal,like “nice to meet you.” Chinese will say it the first time see another person. 幸会 is a bit literacy from ancient Chinese more commonly used by male. If you want to greet aquaintances, you can ask “吃饭了吗?”or “上哪儿去啊?”And we don’t have expressions like “have a good day! “when you want to say good bbye.

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