On the Limits of Ni Hao

After my last post on 你好吗, which I consider “a greeting on training wheels,” I received an email from a reader about the non-interrogative, even more widely used greeting 你好. Brad’s email (slightly edited):

I drove to a friend’s house [in Qingdao] to pick him up for supper. My friend doesn’t speak English and I’ve only known him for a few weeks. When he got into the car I greeted him with “你好!” (paying careful attention to not say “你好吗?” ha ha). To my complete surprise, he turned to me and said “You know Brad, I don’t want you to take this the wrong way, and I’m not saying this to be critical of your Chinese, but I think we’ve now moved beyond having to say 你好.”

I think I had a dumb look on my face and didn’t know what to say… nor did I know exactly what he meant. I asked him “What should I say? I don’t think I understand.”

He said that 你好 is hardly ever used by people who know each other well, and it’s fine and dandy to use it between people who know there’s a formal barrier between them (age, acquaintance, colleague, stranger, superior, etc.), but that he considered me a close enough friend to no longer be at the 你好 stage.

To me, this sounded exactly like the French “vous” vs. “tu” or Spanish Ud. vs. Uds. Again, I asked him what I should then say in such a context. His answer — say nothing! I said that’s impossible… I must have to say something like 最近很忙吗? or even 吃饭了没有? He said I could if I wanted, but it should sound sincere instead of just an insincere verbal gap-filler (I’ve actually heard that line a few times from colleagues who have stopped me dead in my tracks for saying something perceived to be an unnecessary “insincerity” like “you’re wearing a nice sweater today.” I now longer give compliments unless it’s pertinent to the situation, and you know what? Neither does anyone else!).

I asked him then what he would say, and he just gave me that “E”* grunt noise that might be the closest thing to a brief, low toned and quick “hey” in English, the same kind used to acknowledge someone you know while on the fly when passing them in the hall at work. He then said I could get right to the point after the grunt.

Shocked! That was my reaction. But even more shocked by the fact that I now can’t recall any “friends” ever addressing themselves with 你好 when we meet as a group. It’s always that E!*, followed by “name”, and then something straight to the point. Even my colleagues (who are friendly with each other, but not friends) don’t say 你好 to each other.

I know there might be a North-South divide on some of these issues (my southwestern friends all said for them 味儿大一点 meant more 辣的,the Northern friends thought it meant 加香, and the deep Southerners didn’t know what it meant), but I’m wondering if you ran into this simplest of linguistic mysteries in Shanghai?

Before I could reply (I can be a bit slow on the old email), he followed up with this:

I think my question was just answered by Syz’s posting on your website on September 29th in which he provided a link to China Expands Its Courtesy: Saying “Hello” to Strangers [PDF link].

The article was further reinforced 3 or 4 times this morning, all within 10 minutes of arriving at the office. Got in the elevator and a colleague immediately said “You’re here a bit late today” to which I answered “Yah, I had to get gas to drive out to the factory”. The others in the elevator smiled and jumped into the conversation – and the morning was off to a good start without a single 你好. Walking down the hall, another colleague saw me and said 小宋,今天你没带饭吗?and we were off to a good start, and then a little later another colleague came into my office and said 这个我给你, and darted off right after handing me a box of Yunnan coffee she bought last week in Dali… again, off on good footing with that colleague too.

My reply, not terribly helpful, was simply:

Yes, that revelation about 你好 slowly dawned on me over the years… Seeing lots of awkward polite conversations between acquaintances, and comparing those with the interactions of friends, builds up to a lot of information over time. You just have to focus on the right thing (in this case, presence or absence of 你好) in order to make the discovery.

Sinosplice commenter Olle Linge (who writes the excellent and super-认真 blog Hacking Chinese), also left a comment recently reminding me of a great post on the blog Laowai Chinese called Nǐ hǎo 你好: A Very Fake Greeting. The post is actually more exploratory than condemning, and has quite a few interesting comments from native speakers of Chinese.

I liked Albert’s takeaway, halfway down the comments:

It sounds like you’re saying (if I may summarize) that saying “Ni hao” every time I see someone is like saying “Hello” in English every time I see someone. Native speakers of English would mix it up with “What’s goin’ on?” and “How’s it goin’?” and maybe even a “‘sup?” from time to time. Those are like the “chifan le mei?” greetings in Chinese.

So maybe this guy was just trying to get me out of my linguistic greeting rut and open my eyes and mouth to the wide and wonderful world of more casual, more native-like greetings.

The same topic was also explored on Quora: Do native Chinese speakers really find Nǐ hǎo 你好 to be a fake or insincere greeting? The top answer there also echoes the above takeaway:

I wouldn’t say it’s insincere, but it’s just that among all the choices of ways to greet people, it tends to be much less used in informal conversation. How many times do you use hello vs. other greetings (hey, hi, yo, how’s it going, etc.) in English?

My own personal experience with the “formality” of 你好 relates to my in-laws. My Chinese in-laws have always treated me well, and been very accepting of me. My mother-in-law spoils me almost as much as she spoils her only child. And yet, in the first couple years of our marriage, I became keenly aware that my father-in-law and I would often greet each other with a 你好 greeting. Sometimes he’d say it to me first, and sometimes I’d first say it to him, but every time it slipped out, I’d mentally recoil just a little bit and think, “damn, this is my father-in-law! Aren’t we closer than this yet?

At the time, I wasn’t focusing specifically on the expression 你好; I was simply noting that we didn’t seem to have a whole lot to say to each other, and that fact seemed to be broadcast loud and clear every time we met by the two syllables that awkwardly escaped our lips: 你好.

We’ve gotten to know each other better over the years, and we’re definitely past 你好 now. I think the most common greeting I use with my in-laws is the “e”* greeting mentioned by Brad above.

你好 isn’t evil. Neither is “hello.” You can’t be friends with the whole world, and your language reflects that, in any language.

*This “e” isn’t the same as the pinyin “e” in the word 饿 meaning “hungry,” or meaning “swan.” It’s much more like the English word “eh,” and the proper (although very rare) pinyin for this sound is actually “ê” (that’s not a tone mark; it’s a circumflex diacritic used simply to differentiate the syllable from the other, more common pinyin “e” sound), although it’s sometimes romanized as the less orthographically problematic “ei.” The character for the “ê” sound is , according to my 新时代汉英大词典. In the article linked to above, Wikipedia weighs in with this comment: “In Pinyin romanized Mandarin Chinese, ê is used to represent the sound /ɛ/ in isolation, which occurs sometimes as an exclamation.”

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