Why "How Are You?" Isn't a Chinese Greeting

When Direct Translation Goes Wrong

Everyone learns a few simple, and practical Chinese phrases on their first day of lessons. What if I told you, that you might still be using them wrong? It's a problem that's more prevalent than you think, and this is the first of a series of blog posts dealing with this subject. 

This week we'll deal with the improper use of greetings such as "How are you" and "Goodbye".

1 你好吗 

It is natural and polite to greet people with "How are you?" in English, however it isn't quite right in the Chinese context. Saying "你好吗" in Chinese to your friends indicates uncaring and unfamiliarity and might result in an awkward and stilted conversation. The reason why we teach this sentence in Chapter One of any textbook is simply to illustrate the  "吗" grammar point. The very few situations that we actually using this sentence are: if you notice somebody is not feeling well or if you haven't seen a person for a long time. 

Proper greetings in Chinese almost always involve referencing specific context as opposed to generalities to show concern and care for your fellow Chinese speaker. For example, around meal time, you would ask "吃了吗?“(Have you eaten?). Seeing people coming home around early evening, you might ask " 下班了啊?" (Just got off work, eh?). On Mondays we'd like to greet with "你的周末怎么样"(How was your weekend?. 

The key thing to remember is that you need to show care by asking about a about specifics.

2 再见

Saying "再见" out loud is fine. Saying "再见" in texts is definitely not

Students frequently end text or email conversation with "再见"  which can be translated to "see you" in English. However, in Chinese, this is a very formal way to say "Goodbye". It's likely that students are simply trying to indicate respect or deference to their teacher however once again in the Chinese context it's slightly awkward and can be seen as rude. In Chinese the feeling that "再见" gives, is very similar to having someone abruptly close a door in your face. 

Saying "再见" out loud is fine. Saying "再见" in texts is definitely not.

The polite way of ending a conversation by text is simply stop texting when the business is done or explain why you have to go and end with "下次聊"(talk to you next time. If you are going to bed, end with "晚安" (good night).

3 一会儿见 (SEe You Later)

Sometimes I get into a panic after receiving an email from a student who had signed off with "See you later!".  In English "see you later" refers to anytime in the future, whereas in Chinese it refers to the immediate future. It's not that I wouldn't be prepared (I'm always prepared :)), but simply that to the native Chinese speaker "See you later" means within the next few hours.

As your Chinese progresses to an advanced level, I would suggest you confirm your phrasing in Chinese with your teacher; a simple translation will surely get into trouble.  You can never be too sure when learning a new language, and as always context is everything!

Wang Rong (Emily) is a cofounder of GoEast and writes columns for the GoEast Blog on Chinese language learning, Chinese culture, and life in China as a language specialist. She holds a BA degree in Teaching Chinese as a Second Language and a MA in Comparative Literature. She has been teaching Chinese to foreigners since 2007 as a tutor and a professor in Universities.

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