How to say sorry in Chinese depends on how sorry you are. Here are three ways to say sorry using Mandarin Chinese language.
If someone steps on your foot and says “sorry” flatly, you might be annoyed. If you and a friend are going to the movies and he arrives a bit late then says “I’m so sorry,” you might be a little surprised and tell him there’s no need to apologize. Do Chinese people do the same?
How to say sorry in Chinese
There are at least three ways to apologize in Chinese language and they are each used in certain contexts. The phrase “对不起 (duìbuqǐ)” which translates to sorry in English is the least used phrase by Chinese people. Is this perhaps why Chinese are thought to never apologize?
Sorry depends on how sorry you are
Here is the hierarchy for apologies in Chinese language: “对不起 (duìbuqǐ)” is the deepest apology, followed by “抱歉 (bào qiàn)”, and the mildest is “不好意思 (bù hǎo yì si)”. The degree of sorry also relates to how frequent the phrase is used in Chinese language. People rarely make serious mistakes so it’s rare to hear “对不起 (duìbuqǐ)”. It’s also considered to be very formal in Chinese. When you do something wrong that has a big impact on others, you must sincerely say “对不起 (duìbuqǐ)”.
For common apologies, a normal ‘sorry’, people say “抱歉 (bào qiàn)”. For example, if you get stuck on the way to work and you’re a few minutes late, you should say “抱歉 (bào qiàn)”. If your colleagues invite you out to lunch but you don’t have time, you should say “抱歉 (bào qiàn)”.
Mild way of saying sorry
You can use “不好意思 (bù hǎo yì si)” for a mild apology or if you are bothering someone for help. When you ask for directions, you should start with “不好意思 (bù hǎo yì si)”. Walking down a crowded street, you can say “不好意思 (bù hǎo yì si), please let me pass.” At a store, if an item is not in stock, the salesman may say to you “不好意思 (bù hǎo yì si), our stock has run out.”
When you are super sorry
The deepest apology is “对不起 (duìbuqǐ)”, but if you really screwed up you can add: “对不起，我错了 (Duìbuqǐ, wǒ cuòle)”, and you’ll have to repeat it 50 times. And maybe buy some flowers!