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.”

19 Comments to “On the Limits of Ni Hao

  1. Kaiwen says:

    沙发?!

    For some reason I have trouble writing “欸” with my IME (Google Pinyin), I can only generate 誒/诶.

    In Taiwan mandarin, “ㄟ” (ei) is often used in text to represent this sound; however, it is more often used in the context of the double-take / confused huh (ㄟ?!你怎麼在學校?), rather than the “e” greeting described above. In my experience, 嘿 is used in writing where I would expect 诶/欸 — then again, I am not a native speaker, and it’s hard for me to tell what exact sound an author was approximating anyway.

    I have never seen ㄝ (which represents IPA /ɛ/, like 謝 ㄒㄧㄝ) used in a similar context.

    • Nate says:

      新华字典 has 8 entries for 诶/欸 in four tones each, I guess the tones make a difference, but they seem pretty intuitive.

  2. trevelyan says:

    Oddly enough, we just covered this on Popup Chinese. Our vote was for 嘿, 嗨 or 哎 with 还好吗 make a serviceable rear-guard action when you actually want to ask how someone is doing.

    http://popupchinese.com/lessons/absolute-beginners/casual-greetings-in-chinese

    Didn’t strike me there was any meaningful difference between northern and southern China on this one, fwiw.

  3. John B says:

    This seems to be a good explanation for the phenomenon in which a Chinese person will ask you a question for which the answer is totally and blindingly obvious as a conversation starter. My father-in-law, for instance, will call people’s home phone and lead with “嘿,老X,你在家吗?”

    I’ve met people in restaurants and they will look at the plates in front of me and say something like “哦,你在吃饭是吧?”

    Though 早 or 早上好 still seems to be pretty widely used.

    • Brad says:

      Yah, I agree that 早 and 早上好 are also pretty common… but only if nothing follows them (ie: no chit chat or other comments… they’re a starter and a stopper all in one).

  4. Popup Chinese talked about this in a recent episode. Brendan O’Kane likened 你好吗 to “how do you do”

  5. kimiik says:

    When a couple stops using greetings, it’s consider as the first step of cutting through niceties. Thanks disappear after few other steps.

  6. From Brad’s email:

    “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 have been running 好久不见 into the ground (I say it facetiously.. if that makes sense, as if I’m pretending to be a first year Mandarin student), sometimes throwing an English/CN mashup, “Hey Annie, big time no jian!”

    It’s true though, that with your family and friends, Hello sounds downright robotic. Some of the slang ‘greetings’ I’ve heard are all very slurred/mumbled semiphore,

    “怎么呀。。忙不。。” “然后呢?” ”怎么样啊?罗安德~“ ”干嘛呀‘ “今天出房了没?” (this one often from my Chinese teacher who comes over once a week, and nags me that I’m like a 宅男 always stuck indoors working).

    Lest we forget: 新手老外 always say 你好. It’s the first thing they learn. It’s like saying KONNICHIWA anywhere in North America. It’s borderline cheesy. So anything you do that puts you in the same boat as ‘that’ is going to make you sound clumsy. In your path to 中国通-ness, you’ll find the natural grungy Mandarin comes across as much more sincere and warm.

    It’s funny, when I first got to China, our company had drivers. These guys were really dirty. And I always listened intently (偷听) to how they talked. I wanted to talk like a ‘natural’ speaker. My colleagues were aghast, “Why would you wanna talk like them!! They’re slobs!”, but I was steadfast in my twisted dude logic, “Yeah, but that what ‘cool’ looks like in China. They’re cool guys. That’s how they talk!”

    I still have a lot to learn.

  7. Dave says:

    I love the fact that 欸 has 4 entries in the Pleco dictionary: 1st tone: {interjection} (used to call attention) 2nd tone: {interjection} (used to express surprise) 3rd tone: {interjection} (used to express disapproval) 4th tone: {interjection} (used to express assent or polite attentiveness) This is the word that every beginner class should start off with…

  8. Jacob Mohs says:

    At first I thought it would be overkill to write all this about something so simple, but then as I continued to read a whole lot of previous experiences started to make sense…

    Ditto on the 你好吗 post.

  9. Mading says:

    Start trying 嗨 or 嘿, much more pleasing

  10. Ricardo says:

    I didn’t realize the importance of using “你好“ in some circumstances. I thought it was the correct, formal and informal way to say “hello” to someone, it does not matter if he or she is your close friend, father, mother, etc. It happens that in Spanish, at least in Peru (I am peruvian), saying “hello” or “hola” is quite normal. You can use it with your parents, family, friends, acquaintances or whoever you meet. It does not mean that you are acting in a “insincerity” way. But, in spanish, I also use other ways of say hello to my fellows: “qué tal?”, “habla (this is a peruvian way of speaking, it is like to say “hey fellow, say something”). But using “hola” or “你好“ is commonly used. Great article John. Regards,

    Ricardo Granda,

  11. Tim says:

    In the situation of picking up a friend, I would have suggested a “来了”, that feels more natural to me… But I’m just a learner too.

  12. Heilong79 says:

    I just naturally moved on to ‘嘿’ as I got the vibe people aren’t big on manners or being polite for politeness sake(like the Japanese) and they far prefer you to not say please or thank you to the in laws, most of the time when meeting new friends I tell them they are too polite(obviously they know us foreigners are big on manners)and they dont need to be as we are all friends. Actually one of my Chinese friends just says 美女/帅哥来了 when meeting our friends.

  13. Jackson says:

    FWIW, when chatting with Chinese friends on the internet, I find that most usually use the character 嗯 (Or the less correct, but also common 恩) to express the affirmative “grunt” sound, whereas the 诶 (or sometimes 欸) is usually used to express the surprised, second-tone “ei?” (often an almost-involuntary expression of surprise), or the more open-mouthed, louder, affirmative, fourth-tone “ei!” (as in all of the ‘comedy’ sketches that involve a person’s in-laws responding to the name “mom” or “dad”, as though to say “yes, that is my name.”)

  14. Jackson says:

    FWIW, when chatting with Chinese friends on the internet, I find that most usually use the character 嗯 (Or the less correct, but also common 恩) to express the affirmative “grunt” sound, whereas the 诶 (or sometimes 欸) is usually used to express the surprised, second-tone “ei?” (often an almost-involuntary expression of surprise), or the more open-mouthed, louder, affirmative, fourth-tone “ei!” (as in all of the ‘comedy’ sketches that involve a person’s in-laws responding to the name “mom” or “dad”, as though to say “yes, that is my name.”)

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