One of the first things that any Chinese lesson, book, or teacher will teach you is “你好 (nǐ hǎo).” 你好 translates into “Hello.” Funny enough, native Chinese speakers rarely use this when speaking to each other. Why you ask? It can come off as overly formal, nonchalant, or even strange.
“你好” is most frequently used when you are meeting someone for the first time, such as being introduced to a business contact. This greeting is often used when shaking hands. However, once you see that business contact again, you should switch to a different greeting. Since you have already met them, saying “你好” can come off as being unfriendly.
Here’s what they actually should say:
吃饭了吗？(chī fàn le mā) Have you eaten?
Unlike the English equivalent, this is not an invitation to lunch. This greeting is basically the same as “hello.” The origin of the greeting dates back to ancient times when the majority of China had very limited food provisions. At that time, whether someone had eaten or not was severely linked to their overall health and wellbeing.
A couple acceptable responses to this greeting would be:
“吃了，你呢? (chī le, nǐ nē)” “Yes I have, what about you?”
“还没，你呢? (hái méi, nǐ nē) “Not yet, what about you?”
“好久不见(hǎo jiǔ bú jiàn)！Long time no see!”
It’s pretty self-explanatory. This greeting is used when you haven’t seen an acquaintance for a while. Keep in mind that the length of time is relative. For example, if you usually see someone every day, it would be appropriate to say this if you haven’t seen him or her in a week or so.
“最近好吗? (zuì jìn hǎo mā) How have you been?”
This is a great follow-up to the previous greeting, although it can also be used as a standalone greeting when accompanied by their name. For example, “Lucy! 最近好吗？”
This greeting is similar to asking someone, “How are you?” Chinese people are not expecting you to give them an eloquent monologue of your problems or achievements. A simple “Good, how are you?” is what they want to hear.
Appropriate responses are:
“还行! 你呢 ? (hái xíng nǐ nē) Not bad! And you?”
“好。你呢? (hǎo. nǐ nē) Good. And you?”
“喂? (wéi or wèi) Hello? [When answering the phone]”
When you answer the phone, this is just like saying “Yes?” or “Hello?”. Often, Chinese people will follow up with a “你好” if they feel the need to be polite, just like “喂，你好?”
“早! (zǎo) ’Morning!”
This is a very short and straightforward greeting. It’s a shortened version of “早安 (zǎo ān)”or “早上好 (zǎo shàng hǎo)”, which both mean “Good morning.”
In Chinese, you can also combine any general time phrase with “好” to form a time-relevant greeting.
下午好(xià wǔ hǎo) Good afternoon.
晚上好(wǎn shàng hǎo) Good evening.
The best response is to repeat the greeting given to you.
“去哪？(qù nǎ) Where are you going?”
This might seem rude and nosy to some foreigners, but it’s fairly customary in China to ask someone where they are going if you see them leaving their house. Alternatively, you can ask, “出去玩(chū qù wán)?” which is like saying, “Going out to play?”
If they respond, “Yes,” you can follow up with a “出去要小心! (chū qù yào xiǎo xīn)” or “Be careful!” which is a nice way of letting them know to have a safe travel.
“回来了(Huí lái le)! You’re back!”
Again, if someone sees you coming home, they might use this greeting. It may seem like they’re stating the obvious, but it’s a way for Chinese people to express interest in your life. Other similar greetings to this are:
“下班了? (xià bān le) Off work?”
“逛街了? (guàng jiē le) You went shopping?”
Typical responses to these greetings are:
“嗯 (èn)” or “诶 (èi)” which means, “Yeah, yep.”
“欢迎光临! (huān yíng guāng lín) Welcome!”
This greeting is often used in restaurants, shops, and other commercial locations. You may also hear the shortened form, “欢迎 (huān yíng)” at the beginning of TV shows, performances, and announcements.
No response necessary for these types of greetings.
“嗨(Hāi),” “嘿(Hēi),” “哈喽(Hā lóu),” “Hi, Hey and Hello!”
These are Internet style of greetings that have become popular with the younger generation of Chinese people. They are far less formal than 你好, but just as versatile when it comes to greetings. They are commonly used over text and instant messaging, but are often said in person as well.
Keep in mind that these are very casual, and should not be used in more formal circumstances as they can be seen as disrespectful. So, next time you run into your Mandarin-speaking friends, ditch the generic “你好” and try one of these!