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How to Address People Properly You Meet in China

I bet “老师”( lǎoshī), “先生”( xiānsheng), “女士”( nǚshì) or “小姐”( xiǎojiě) are familiar to all Chinese language learners, because you have most likely used these terms in introductory courses; these are the common honorifics to address people in China with the exception of “小姐”, due to its connotation of prostitution nowadays. If you only follow the limited scenarios in your textbook, you won’t go very far in interacting with Chinese people. The terms presented above are really not enough to know how to address Chinese people you will meet in real life!

In China, various forms of honorifics will be used in different situations. To some degree, choosing the appropriate term will show your wit, politeness, literacy and respect to others. Here we are going to briefly introduce various forms of honorifics Chinese people use daily:

#1 ADDRESSING STRANGERS

There will be a diverse group of people you’ll meet daily in public areas, such as: a supermarket, park, airport, railway station, etc. Most of them will not be acquainted with you –possibly meeting each other for the first time. Under these circumstances, how do the Chinese address each other?

Addressing THE ELDERLY

When you meet an elder, someone who is clearly as old as your grandparents, you can address them as “大爷”( dà yé) or “老爷爷”( lǎo yéye) for a man, and  “大妈”( dà mā) or “老奶奶” (lǎo nǎinai) for a woman. To use a neutral form, use “老人家”( lǎo rén jiā) to address an elderly male or female. If their age is similar to your parents, you can use “叔叔”( shū shu) or “大叔”( dà shū) for a man or “阿姨”( ā’yí) for a woman. Sometimes, you can also use “大哥”( dà gē)/ “哥”(gē) or “大姐”( dà jiě)/ “姐”( jiě) for people who are not much older than you, in which the speaker wants to make a close relationship or show respect to the person being addressed.  However, one thing you should pay attention to is that some women may become upset when  called “大妈”, because nowadays this word can be used in a derogatory sense for old woman, so use it with reasonable care.

Addressing THE YOUNG

When you are older than someone, you can address them as “小伙子” (xiǎo huǒzi) for a young man and “小姑娘”( xiǎo gūniang) or “小妹妹” (xiǎo mèimei) for a young girl. When you are at in the same generation, you can call them using an informal, but very popular, form of “帅哥”( shuài gē) or “美女”( měi nǚ)  which is “小哥哥”( xiǎo gē ge) or “小姐姐”( xiǎo jiějie), similar to lad or lass in English. By using “小哥哥” or “小姐姐” you get rid of the embarrassment and awkwardness of starting up a conversation, as the other person won’t feel as uncomfortable. This type of honorific also has a connotation of being young and beautiful.

#2 ADDRESSING ACQUAINTANCES

When talking about acquaintances, there are different terms that should be used.

Addressing THE ELDERS

For older people that are your relatives, Chinese people will address them according to the position in the family hierarchy. For instance,爷爷(yéye)/奶奶(nǎinai) (parents of your father), 外公(wài gōng)/外婆(wài pó) (parents of your mother), 舅舅(jiùjiu)/舅妈(jiù mā) (your mother’s brother and his wife), 姨(yí)/姨夫(yí fù) (your mother’s sister and her husband) and so on and so forth. One thing you should know is that there are tons of different forms used to address people in a Chinese family, as these are just a few examples. (Check the Chinese family tree.)

There is another group of people who don’t have direct kinship but get along well with your family. They can be addressed with the form “Family name + 爷爷/奶奶” or “Family name + 叔叔/阿姨”, such as 李爷爷(Lǐ yéye), 赵奶奶(Zhào nǎinai), 马叔叔(Mǎ shūshu), 郭阿姨(Guō ā’yí), etc.

Addressing THE YOUNG

For younger people in the same generation, forms of greeting will be much more relaxed and will occur multiple times a day. You can use a person’s given name or nickname that the person has previously acknowledged. Take 张六一(Zhāng Liùyī) as an example. If you are friends, you can call him 六一,小一,一一,小六 or any of the other familiar names that have been previously used.

If you are not in same generation (if you are older than them), then you can address a young person with their full name, or a nickname. It is important to note that for some Chinese people, using their full name usually means something serious happened.

#3 Addressing According to IDENTIFICATIONS

General addressing

In China, certain jobs carry a higher social status with them, and these workers are usually addressed by their job titles. For example: 吴经理(Wú jīnglǐ) Manager Wu; 张老师(Zhāng lǎoshī), Teacher Zhang; 刘主任(Liú zhǔrèn), Director Liu; 王医生(Wáng yīsheng), Doctor Wang); 李警官(Lǐ jǐngguān), Li Sir; 杨博士(Yáng bóshì), Dr.Yang and so on and so forth. Surnames may be placed before the job titles as well.

Note that the term 老师 has expanded far beyond its original meaning of teacher in recent years. It is now commonly used in schools, media, and entertainment to respectfully address someone who is knowledgeable or has expertise in a certain field such as a movie director, or anyone who works in a school such as a school administrator.

Addressing in work settings

For individuals working for the government or in commercial enterprises, it is typical to address them by their rank level. For example, 市长 (shì zhǎng), mayor; 校长 (xiàozhǎng), school principal; 经理 (jīng lǐ), manager. As with jobs with high social status, surnames may be placed before the rank when addressing these workers.

Another term that is becoming quite popular these days is 总 (zǒng). 总 by itself could mean chief, and was originally an abbreviation for 总经理 (zǒng jīng lǐ), general manager; 总裁 (zǒng cái), chairman or president. Such a person would be respectfully addressed with “their surname (zǒng)”. For example, 王总(Wáng Zǒng), 徐总(Xú Zǒng) etc.. Over the years, the use of 总(zǒng) has expanded beyond its original meaning and is widely used nowadays to address anyone who holds a relatively high rank in government, state owned enterprises, or commercial companies. Depending on the atmosphere and culture of your company though, some clerks at individual enterprises are calling their boss “老大(lǎodà)”to create a more amiable relationship among the bosses and the employees. In many financial or hi-tech companies, the staff are also accustomed to addressing each other with their English names without emphasizing hierarchical relationship to create a more equal company culture.

Addressing the service workers

Whether you’re at a restaurant, convenience store, or spa it is always important to address service workers with respect. In Chinese we often use “服务员(Fúwù yuán)” to refer to “waiter” and “waitress”. 

With the logistic industry booming in China, there is one term used for a delivery driver:  “快递小哥(Kuàidì xiǎo gē)”. At the same time, since the take-out industry has sharply risen, a new term was been created to call the food delivery driver: “外卖小哥(Wàimài xiǎo gē)”. One thing I must point out is that “快递小哥” or “外卖小哥” can’t directly be used to call a specific person. Instead, when face-to-face with a driver, it is best to use one of ways mentioned before.

As we mentioned before, we can use “Boss’s Last Name +总” in the workplace. However, there is an informal term used as well: “老板(Lǎobǎn)”. When talking about “老板”, it can be used in both office settings and as a respectful term for a shopkeeper. For instance,  if you shop in a private store or eat in a restaurant, it would be suitable to call the owner “老板”. By the way, the wife of the shopkeeper or the female proprietor is called “老板娘(Lǎobǎnniáng)”.

师傅 (shīfù) is originally reserved more for people who have expertise in a certain skill, workmanship, or techniques such as culinary, martial arts, plumbing, carpentry to name a few. It can also be used to respectfully address anyone working as a blue-collar worker, such as taxi driver, factory worker, craftsman, or delivery clerk.

Well, honorifics are extremely varied across the world. In China, these various terms of address have changed and adapted to modern times. How to address the people you will meet in China is not an easy task, even for the Chinese! Honorifics should be consistent with local culture and social customs, but above all, they should still reflect the respect and care of the person being addressed. In conclusion, I hope this short introduction will provide helpful information for your Chinese language growth or an upcoming trip to China, and hopefully, you can feel much more local when addressing people in Chinese.

Cecilia He

Cecilia He

Cecilia majored in teaching Chinese as a foreign language. She has vast experience in educating her students on how to listen to and speak Chinese, and is trained to teach HSK courses. She has mastered the method and practice of teaching the structure, historical development, and relationships of languages as an academic subject, and has also done extensive research on Intercultural Communication and Sinology.

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