Nǐ hǎo 你好: A Very Fake Greeting

[Update: June 26, 2014. Julie Tha Gyaw at Yoyo Chinese just wrote an excellent related post: How Chinese People Want to Be Greeted]

I was waiting for my turn at the ping pong table the other night, when an older teacher started walking past me. I’d seen him several times before and even played ping pong with him once.

“Nǐ hǎo 你好,” I said.

He stopped his walk and said, in all sincerity that most people don’t say “nǐ hǎo” 你好 as a greeting. It just sounds too fake (tài jiǎ de 太假的).

I was very startled and asked him to please tell me what I should say. He then went into how good friends will say, “Chīfàn le ma?” 吃饭了吗? or one of the many variations on the question and there are different responses depending on whether or not you’ve just eaten.

This might have been a good little prank, but he was perfectly serious. He was even explaining it to one of his Chinese colleagues who was standing there too (as if he didn’t know!). The colleague, in all earnestness, was agreeing and adding little tid bits of his own to the advice.

I listened very politely and then it ended and they left.

I was surprised to hear all this because:

A. I already know all about “Chī le ma?” 吃了吗? and all the other “eat-n-greet” options around here. I was shocked that these teachers thought I could understand all the other vocabulary they were using yet, somehow, managed to miss one of the most basic greetings.

B. I thought “Nǐ hǎo” 你好 was perfectly friendly. I had no idea it sounded so “fake.” I think he might have meant it was too formal and not casual enough for good friends.

C. I don’t consider him a good friend. He’s an older teacher who I’ve only spoken with a few times, and usually the conversations have left me (like this one) with an unpleasant wèidào 味道 in my kǒu .

So the real questions for any of those loyal few who still tune in to this blog are:

1. Is there any truth in what this man says?

2. Should I now be afraid to say “Nǐ hǎo” 你好 at the risk of sounding fake?

I don’t know why, I just prefer not to ask people if they’ve eaten as a greeting. But I’d be willing to try if the overwhelming number of comments (i.e. more than zero) tell me I should.

56 Replies to “Nǐ hǎo 你好: A Very Fake Greeting”

  1. I’ve been told this as well, and I’ve noticed that when greeting each other, most Chinese people rarely use “ni hao.” However, I also think that 99% of the time, Chinese are probably going to expect laowai to say nihao anyway, so it probably doesn’t matter.

  2. Ditto @ JB

    They expect us laowai to say it because they don’t expect us to be native speakers. And you probably wont ever sound naturally Chinese if your using nihao for every greeting. Ni chi fan le ma? Or zuijin zenmayang are less formal, and more common from what I understand. I’ve been told on more than one occasion by Chinese friends that they don’t commonly use ni hao unless its to attract the attention of a stranger in a polite way.

  3. Regardless of dialect, the Chinese greeting for people you know is generally something along the lines of 吃饭了吗?Or 好久没见,最近怎么样啊?Or (and I think you’ve mentioned this before on your blog) a description of what is happening, such as 回家啊?你好 is a bit stilted if you are already acquainted, it’s sort of like a polite noise to make the first time you’re introduced. I wouldn’t worry about point 2 though – it’s not a hard and fast rule, and as JB and Carl point out, 老外 are going to be given some latitude.

  4. I think the relevant point is that while you don’t consider the man to be a friend in any way, you were already acquainted with him–even if just barely. In my own experience at least, that automatically moves the person out of 你好 range.

  5. My wife is 36 and grew up in Beijing. She has never heard 吃了吗 or 吃饭了吗 used as a greeting, and associates those sayings with (1) misguided tourist guides and (2) the time period of her grandparents and earlier.

    I’ve visited Beijing a number of times, and I constantly hear swarms of 你好s, especially among family members who haven’t seen each other in a while. Let’s face it: immediate family members and very good friends barely even grunt one syllable in English or Chinese, something like “hey” or “eh.”

    I’m going to Beijing next week, and I know that while I’m there, 你好 will be completely replaced with 过年好, used by salespeople, wait-staff, security guards, neighbors, friends, family members, etc. Everyone uses it all the time, which is my impression of 你好 at other times of the year.

  6. I use 你好 (& dialectal variants) fairly often. In my experience, so do my (non-foreign) flatmates. If I know the person we then go on to discussing dinner. I also hear 你好 constantly from friends on the phone shortly after “?”

    I’d guess the teacher either wanted to be overly teacherlike to enforce his status or was simply trying to help you thus solidifying a practice that isn’t as broad as he stated. A lot of people think using the basic crap we learn first immediately paints us as a newbie. I get this from Chinese and foreigners alike. But sometimes the basic stuff we learn first is learned first precisely because of it’s usefulness.

    That’s my guess anyway.

  7. I just asked my Chinese room-mate who’s Sichuanese. He says if he doesn’t know them or if it’s the first time you meet, say 你好 (it sounds official or formal), if they are someone he knows but doesn’t hang out with, 你吃了饭没有?, and for a good friend 你去哪儿 or something more personal like that.
    Like you mentioned yourself, it seems that your teacher is suggesting that you since you know each other you should show this through your greetings.
    I use 你好 all the time though, and I know it’s not perfect, so I’ll add a 最近怎么样 or something to it. I also feel weird about asking people if they’ve eaten, and I myself never know whether to respond to this honestly or not!
    FYI Sichuan people also like to use 爪子吗 or 咋子吗 a hell of a lot for greeting friends.

  8. As a rule of thumb, the worst people to give information about their own language are the native speakers… unless they are teachers of that language. Was this teacher an English teacher or Chinese teacher? I’ve heard much misinformation given out about Chinese from native speakers (same goes for English and other languages). That said, perhaps this persnickety prof was touching on a finer point of finesse in greetings. Depending on how the interaction went, if there were time to add a 怎么样? and the nihao seemed short and awkward, maybe that was what he was sensing. I tend to add in something else if there is time, including commenting on what the person is doing (e.g. 下班了! etc.). That’s for the “hellos”, but I seem to get the phone goodbyes wrong. Any time I am speaking Chinese on the phone, I always seem to be hanging up while the person is still saying his/her goodbyes. I try to stay on longer but there seems to be no end to the exchange of goodbye comments before hanging up… hmmm maybe my next blog post….

  9. I think we all could agree that you can’t judge what people say in one city to be what is said in all of China. Furthermore Beijing probably isn’t the best example, considering it is one of the top laowai-influenced cities in all of China. Go to a smaller city and I bet things will be a lot different.

    And in any case, I was talking with someone from Tianjin just a few days ago. I asked him to teach me some 北方话 and the first thing he said was 吃了吗.

  10. Actually, my taiji teacher told me that Ni hao is not usually used amongst the Chinese, it’s 吃了吗 and it goes back to when Chinese didn’t have a lot to eat, as a good friend you would ask if they had eaten, and if not you feed them.

    To this day, amongst his friends that’s how they greet each other.

  11. I’ve heard ni hao repeated twice with a big smile when someone is in a rush and/or is addressing a group of people, sometimes followed with some of the more friendly greetings mentioned above. So don’t completely abandon it!

  12. As a non-native speaker with a fairly amount of background in the language, I think it’s true that Ni Hao is very stereotypical for foreigners. However, one thing to note –I could be wrong but this is my sense–is that native Chinese often use Ni Hao when meeting someone for the first time in a very informal setting (e.g. college campus), or someone they haven’t seen for a while. But I mostly communicate with under-30 Chinese.

  13. “So the real questions for any of those loyal few who still tune in to this blog are”

    This is obviously non-responsive to your question, but have you abandoned the blog? I still check in periodically but wasn’t sure if you had decided not to update…

  14. First of all @Goeff,
    That’s just my way of making fun of myself and how rarely I’ve been updating recently. I’ve got a lot more really, REALLY exciting posts planned, so I’m sure you’re periodic check-ins will be rewarded.

    Now @everyone else,
    It’s analogy time!

    It sounds like you’re saying (if I may summarize) that saying “Ni hao” every time I see someone is like saying “Hello” in English every time I see someone. Native speakers of English would mix it up with “What’s goin’ on?” and “How’s it goin’?” and maybe even a “‘sup?” from time to time. Those are like the “chifan le mei?” greetings in Chinese.

    So maybe this guy was just trying to get me out of my linguistic greeting rut and open my eyes and mouth to the wide and wonderful world of more casual, more native-like greetings.

    I know of a few English teachers at the college here who don’t allow their students to say, “Hi, how are you?” anymore because they just got so sick of hearing it. Those students are now forced to say one of the above casual greetings.

    But I don’t know which I prefer: to have a Chinese person always say “Hello, how are you?” to me (which we really do say to each other) or to have a Chinese student come up and startle me by asking “How’s trix?”

  15. Ni Hao is perfectly acceptable as a friendly greeting, not the only choice though.

    Language varies with the times. Some linguists believe that language has a life-it was born a long time ago; it dies some day; some languages are dead already. Language can also tell the history and culture of a country.

    Chi Le Ma was used quite often twenty or more years ago, when China was so poor a country that people then just strived to make a living. Naturally, people greeted each other with Chi Le Ma to show their friendliness.

    Some expressions can survive, others not. Chi Le Ma seems to be giving its place to Ni Hao. We all know why , right?

  16. Just wanted to add one more thing, that I live in Chinatown in Manhattan, and I think there is quite a bit of foreigner influence, understandably. I’ve heard from several people in mainland, that 很高兴认识你 or 认识你很高兴 is not Chinese to say at all, and that they never say that and have in fact never even heard it said. However, here in Chinatown, I heard it a lot, even between Chinese people.

    Everything is subjective I think, depending on the person’s age, background, location, etc.

  17. Huh, interesting about the 很高兴认识你, I heard it frequently enough when I lived in Xi’an, and the mainlanders I communicate with now via e-mail penpal, social networking sites etc. mostly use that expression when making first contact with me. Perhaps it’s something they either just say to foreigners, is regional, or just speech changing.

  18. At my uni in Canada, people learn to say “认识你很高兴”, though “很高兴认识你” is more common. When introduced to new people, say 你好 as many times as possible really fast while shaking hands.

    I invariably use 幸会 as a ‘pleased to meet you’–it’s out of use, but everyone still understands it. I want to use 久仰 but I’m not sure people would know to give a 彼此 back.

    As for greetings, at least in my experience (Shanghai, Taipei mostly) you can use something like or a lot of the time. I am not a master of the situational question, but it’s out there a lot. Also, where does 吃了吗 come up in Mandarin (common in lots of dialects)? I don’t use it unless I actually want to know.

    If the guy who lectured you was a teacher/your teacher, why not hit up a 老师好? — keeps it formal.

  19. I love ni hao because hao is such a great word in Chinese…it works with so many things. Everytime I’ve tried, “Chi le ma?” with younger friends they actually tell me when they’ve eaten! I suppose it’s even worse to say zhāo shang hao in the morning…

  20. I’ve heard both Ni hao (or Ni hao, ni hao, ni hao) and chi le ma? in modern contemporary usage, when the only foreigner (me) is not active in the conversation.

    However, I’m surprised that no one’s pointed out that the Chinese are not big on greetings when it comes to their friends / common acquaintances. It’s a different story with people you’re meeting for the first time or in more formal circumstances, but with friends they don’t often say hello or goodbye. They just rock up and get on with it.

  21. Albert: I think your summary is quite accurate, at least if my background here in Taiwan counts for anything. I’ve asked many friends about greeting simply because I get bored with 你好. Here, is extremely common in the morning and I love the expression, but what to say in the afternoon or evening (nobody every says 晚上好 here)?

    Most of my friends have answered that you just ask questions about the current situation (like you and other people have already discussed at length) such as 你吃飯了嗎 or 下課了嗎. I feel very, very awkward with this kind of greetings and I don’t really know how to change that.

    As for 你好, I definitely hear Taiwanese people saying that to each other, especially on the phone (as someone said, usually as a follow-up after .

    However, I haven’t asked anybody explicitly about when -not- to use 你好, but I’ll do that and get back soon. Interesting post!

  22. Well, okay, that was quick. I’ve asked some people now and it confirms what has already been said. 你好 is mostly used when meeting someone the first time or on the phone when you don’t really know whom you’re talking to. I then went on to ask if it would be very strange if I used 你好 to greet my friends and they said, no, not very strange, but a little bit, because it sounds a bit distanced and too polite.

  23. I’m glad that I’m not the only one who feels that way about 你好. I’m from Singapore and have been living in Germany for about four and a half years, and when people started saying that to me, both Germans who were trying to be friendly or smartasses, I found it extremely weird. I personally would never say that, and I have never had anyone in Singapore greet me that way. For some reason it sounds really sterile to me, like someone was trying to distance himself from me, which is not at all a good feeling.

  24. i would say “chile ma” is used more often among people over 40 in China. “ni hao” is perfectly ok. i myself have never said “chile ma “as greetings.as some of the previous comments for this article have pointed out, my colleagues (around 25)agree that the only occasion for ‘chile ma” is around meal time and they really care about whether you’ve eaten or not.

  25. Since this post I have been doing an informal study of Chinese teachers coming into our school. I wait for them to greet me first to see what they naturally say, and they have all been saying “nihao”. Maybe influenced by living in U.S.?? I don’t know this topic is confusing.

  26. I don’t think it’s to say 你好. I say that all the time. Especially to people you are not familiar with. It’s kinda formality. For close friends, I just say, 你来了 or nothing.

    吃了吗 is not as popular as it was, I believe. And it would be absolutely absurd to ask in the wrong time, like 3 in the afternoon or 10 in the night or 10 in the morning. If it’s close to lunch/dinner time, it’s fine.

  27. Exactly right!

    quote “xiaozhu said:

    i would say “chile ma” is used more often among people over 40 in China. “ni hao” is perfectly ok. i myself have never said “chile ma “as greetings.as some of the previous comments for this article have pointed out, my colleagues (around 25)agree that the only occasion for ‘chile ma” is around meal time and they really care about whether you’ve eaten or not.

    Comment date: Feb 26, 2010”

  28. is this probably related to in which part of China you are? I’ve been in Shenzhen studying chinese for one term now. One of my teacher said that 吃了吗, is an old term that is rarely used now. Or at least in the southern China, I guess.

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  31. I’m not sure but I think this is just very reasonable, because the same case happens in my native language – Vietnamese. The word for saying “hello” in Vietnamese which all the foreigners are told is “xin chào”, and I met a lot of them who using that word. But in fact, that word only exists in theory, and non of Vietnamese people ever use it in real life. I really can’t tell where it came from.
    So, anyone knows the same case in any other language?

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  34. I guess there are several ways you could understand this “ni hao” thing and also depending on the tones you express this greeting, it might give people different feelings about it:
    1. In a polite way of greeting people;
    2.could be a way of showing a sense of distance to someone that you don’t really like. (which in the case, you could say it is very fake).

    I think there’s still a lot of people using it by adding some emotional phrases before it: “ei, ni hao”, “hai, ni hao”, “you, ni hao” or similar stuff

    Most of the time, people use “hai”(=hi), “ha lou”(=hello), “zao”(=morning)

  35. There’s still one answer missing: What actually does someone respond to a person saying 吃饭了吗?

    If he’s using it just as a set phrase, not really interested in whether you’ve eaten or not, then there’re must be a common set phrase for the responder as well!?

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