How to Make Our Communication in Chinese Better? – Annoying ‘好吧’

As a Chinese teacher, I always enjoy teaching Chinese in my class with the standard curriculum. However, I also notice there are multitudes of small pieces of information which wouldn’t be mentioned in a textbook. Hence I decided to share these small treasures of the Chinese language. I think these details will make our communication in Chinese better.

One phrase that has trouble me a lot is: ‘好(hǎo)吧(ba)’. There was one time when I had an American colleague who struggled with using this phrase correctly. He certainly knew: ‘好(hǎo)’ means ‘good’, ‘ok’, ‘great’ and ‘吧(ba)’ is just a particle word, so for him ‘好(hǎo)吧(ba)’ was something about ‘great’. So when I would suggest ideas with him at work, he would say ‘好(hǎo)吧(ba)’. It was confusing and frustrating because I was unclear of his meaning of the phrase.

Let’s look at the following example between a boy and girl:

Boy:míng tiān wǒ men qù kàn diàn yǐng hǎo ma?
Shall we go to theater tomorrow?

Girl:hǎo ba。

Boy:rú guǒ nǐ bù xiǎng kàn,méi guān xi。
It’s ok if you wouldn’t like to.

When the girl said ‘好(hǎo)吧(ba)’, the boy definitely felt that she didn’t want to do it. ‘好(hǎo)吧(ba)’ is usually understood as a compromising OK to a suggestion where you can’t say no and people know you don’t like it. When I heard ‘好(hǎo)吧(ba)’ from him, I was unsure about what my colleague’s attitude was towards me. I thought my colleague never agreed with me and he would never give me suggestions. After some time of hearing it all the time, we figured out the misunderstanding and made sure that he understood how to use it correctly in daily situations.
Since we know ‘好(hǎo)吧(ba)’ is a unique phrase, what else we can use for positive ‘ok’, ‘good’…? Here are four commonly used words or phrases:
1. 好(hǎo)
2. 好(hǎo)的(de)
3. 行(xíng)
4. 嗯(èn) with a nod (my personal favorite).

Let’s take look at the same example that we looked at earlier using one of the commonly used phrases or words.

Boy: míng tiān wǒ men qù kàn diàn yǐng hǎo ma?
Shall we go to the theater tomorrow?

Girl: 好(hǎo)!/ 好(hǎo)的(de)!/行(xíng)!/嗯(èn)

As you can see, when using one these four phrases it will be clear that girl definitely would like to go with the boy to see that movie. She didn’t make it seem like a large ordeal to go to the movies with the boy. Now they can happily enjoy the movie tomorrow. ‘好(hǎo)吧(ba)’ is still useful in the right situation. For example, I always get ‘好(hǎo)吧(ba)’ from students as I assign homework:

Vera: jīn tiān de zuò yè shì xiě yī piān zuò wén。
Home work for today is to write an essay.

Students:hǎo ba。

In this case, I understand what they mean. You should make sure you are using the phrases correctly as it is important for you to appropriately convey your message. So if you can’t say ‘no’ and you do want people know you don’t like it, say this aloud ‘好(hǎo)吧(ba)’! Stay tune for next tip and see you next time.

Vera Zhang

After graduating from East China Normal University in 2005, Vera Zhang (张晓丽) started her career in teaching Chinese as a second language. Her first teaching job was teaching high school Chinese in Philippines and realized how much she loved this job. In 2007, she came back Shanghai and spent 7 years in ChinesePod. During that, she also went to America to learn language learning knowledge and curriculum editing by teaching in a high school. Now she works in a start-up company and has developed a new Chinese learning app-HelloChinese. She hopes she can share her knowledge in Chinese and make Chinese learning easy and fun.

  • Siddharta Gautama

    Thanks, very helpful tip! I think I also mixed this up before, I will try to remember it from now on!

  • Awesome tip, Vera! It’s funny how adding a character in Chinese (like 吧 – ba) changes the tone of a response. In English that 吧 (ba) is only represented by the way someone says the exact same word. A: Shall we go to the theater tomorrow? B: Ehh…ok… Love these! :)