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How to Properly Address People You Meet in China

Chinese language learners probably know the words “老师”( lǎoshī), “先生”( xiānsheng), “女士”( nǚshì) or “小姐”( xiǎojiě) because they are commonly taught in introductory courses. However, only using these honorifics won’t help you much in interacting with Chinese people in real life. This is because in China, different honorifics are used in different situations.

Choosing the appropriate term demonstrates your wit, politeness, literacy, and respect for others. In the following article, we will briefly introduce some of the honorifics commonly used in China.

  1. Addressing strangers
  2. Addressing acquaintances
  3. Addressing according to title

#1 Addressing strangers

When in public areas like supermarkets, parks, airports, or railway stations, you’ll come across a variety of people who you don’t know. In China, when meeting someone for the first time, how do people address each other?

Addressing the elderly

To address an elderly person in China, such as someone as old as your grandparents, you can use “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. For a neutral form, use “老人家”( lǎo rén jiā). If someone’s age is similar to your parents, you can address them as “叔叔”( shū shu) or “大叔”( dà shū) for a man, or “阿姨”( ā’yí) for a woman. Sometimes, you can use “大哥”( dà gē)/ “哥”(gē) or “大姐”( dà jiě)/ “姐”( jiě) for people who are not much older than you to show respect or build a close relationship.

It’s important to note that some women may find the term “大妈” offensive, as it can be considered derogatory. So, use it with care.

Addressing the young

To address a young man, you can use “小伙子” (xiǎo huǒzi), and for a young girl, “小姑娘”( xiǎo gūniang) or “小妹妹” (xiǎo mèimei). If you are in the same generation, you can use informal but popular terms like “帅哥”( shuài gē) or “美女”( měi nǚ), as well as “小哥哥”( xiǎo gē ge) or “小姐姐”( xiǎo jiějie), which can make the conversation less awkward and uncomfortable. These terms also connote youth and beauty.

#2 Addressing acquaintances

When talking about acquaintances, there are different terms that should be used depending on their relationship to you.

Addressing elders

For older relatives, Chinese people will address them according to their position in the family hierarchy. For example, you would address your father’s parents as 爷爷 (yéye) and 奶奶 (nǎinai), and your mother’s parents as 外公 (wài gōng) and 外婆 (wài pó). Your mother’s brother and his wife are addressed as 舅舅 (jiùjiu) and 舅妈 (jiù mā), while your mother’s sister and her husband are addressed as 姨 (yí) and 姨夫 (yí fù). There are many other forms used to address people in a Chinese family, and you can check out the Chinese family tree for more examples.

There are also terms for people who are not directly related to you but are still close with your family. You can address them 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), and 郭阿姨 (Guō ā’yí), among others.

Addressing the young

When greeting people in your generation, it’s common to use relaxed and informal forms of address that can be repeated throughout the day. You can refer to someone by their given name or a nickname that they’ve previously used. For example, if you’re friends with 张六一(Zhāng Liùyī), you could call him 六一,小一,一一,小六 or any other name that he’s comfortable with. However, if you’re speaking to someone younger than you, it’s best to address them using their full name or a nickname. It’s important to note that for some Chinese people, using their full name could imply that something serious has happened.

#3 Addressing according to title

In General

Certain jobs in China carry a higher social status, and people often address these workers by their job titles. Simply place their surname before their title. For example, you might address someone as 吴经理 (Wú jīnglǐ) for Manager Wu, 张老师 (Zhāng lǎoshī) for Teacher Zhang, 刘主任 (Liú zhǔrèn) for Director Liu, 王医生 (Wáng yīsheng) for Doctor Wang, 李警官 (Lǐ jǐngguān) for Sir Li, 杨博士 (Yáng bóshì) for Dr. Yang, and so on.

It’s worth noting that the term “老师” (lǎoshī) has expanded beyond its original meaning of teacher in recent years. Nowadays, it’s commonly used to respectfully address someone who is knowledgeable or has expertise in a certain field, such as a movie director or school administrator.

In work settings

In China, individuals working for the government or commercial businesses are typically addressed by their rank, such as 市长 (shì zhǎng) for mayor, 校长 (xiàozhǎng) for school principal, and 经理 (jīng lǐ) for manager. As previously mentioned, simply add the person’s surname before their rank.

A popular term that has emerged in recent years is 总 (zǒng), which means “chief” and was originally an abbreviation for 总经理 (zǒng jīng lǐ) for general manager or 总裁 (zǒng cái) for chairman or president. Respectful address for such a person would be “surname + 总 (zǒng)” such as 王总 (Wáng Zǒng) and 徐总 (Xú Zǒng).

The use of 总 (zǒng) has expanded beyond its original meaning and is now commonly used to address anyone who holds a relatively high rank in government, state-owned enterprises, or commercial businesses. However, depending on the atmosphere and culture of the company, some employees at small businesses may call their boss “老大 (lǎodà)” to create a more amiable relationship between the bosses and  employees.

In many financial or high-tech companies, staff are accustomed to addressing each other with their English names without emphasizing hierarchical relationships to create a more egalitarian company culture.

Addressing service workers

In Chinese culture, it is important to show respect towards service workers. The most common term used for waiters and waitresses is “服务员(Fúwù yuán)”. Additionally, delivery drivers are referred to as “快递小哥(Kuàidì xiǎo gē)” for packages and “外卖小哥(Wàimài xiǎo gē)” for food delivery. However, these terms should not be used to directly address a specific person. Instead, it is best to use one of ways mentioned before.

In the workplace, it is common to use “Boss’s Last Name +总” to address someone in a high-ranking position. Another informal term that can be used is “老板(Lǎobǎn)”. This term can be used both in office settings and as a respectful term for a shopkeeper or restaurant owner. The wife of the owner or female proprietor is called “老板娘(Lǎobǎnniáng)”.

“师傅(shīfù)” is a term used to respectfully address someone who is skilled in a certain craft or technique, such as cooking, martial arts, or carpentry. It can also be used for blue-collar workers like taxi drivers, factory workers, and delivery clerks.

Closing Thoughts

Honorifics differ across the world, and in China, they have evolved with the times. Addressing people in China can be challenging, even for locals. It’s important to follow local customs and show respect to the person being addressed.

I hope this brief guide will assist you in your Chinese language learning or your future trip to China. By using the appropriate honorifics, you can assimilate better into Chinese culture and show your respect towards the people you interact with.

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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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