Saying SORRY and THANK YOU is considered a good manner. But the frequency of people saying sorry and thank you may differ in different countries. For example, British, Canadians and Japanese are known for saying sorry a lot, whereas Chinese people may be known for the opposite — not saying sorry and thank you enough. Why is that?

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Frankly speaking, as a Chinese who grew up in China, I never thought that there was something wrong not saying sorry in many situations until my foreign friends and students told me that they think Chinese people are rude because they didn’t apologize to them.

Before we jump into conclusion, I would like to talk about the Chinese words for “sorry”. There are two common words for “sorry”, one is 对不起(duìbuqǐ), and the other one is 不好意思(bùhǎoyìsi). let’s see what are the differences.

对不起(duìbuqǐ) has a stronger tone and meaning than不好意思(bùhǎoyìsi), Chinese people would say duì bu qǐ when they apologize for doing something wrong or something that let people down.

For example:

Apologize for doing something wrong
对不起,这都是我的错。
duìbuqǐ ,zhè dōu shì wǒde cuò.
Sorry, this is all my fault.
对不起,我们还是分手吧。
duìbuqǐ ,wǒmen háishì fènshǒu ba.
I’m sorry, but let’s just break up.
对不起,我不是故意要伤害你的。
duìbuqǐ ,wǒ bú shì gùyì yào shānghài nǐ de 。
I am sorry, I didn’t mean to hurt you.

Let someone down
我做了太多坏事,我对不起我的父母。
wǒ zuò le tàiduō huàishì ,wǒ duìbuqǐ wǒ de fùmǔ.
I did too many bad things, I let my parents down.

Whereas bùhǎoyìsi may be more casual and can be used in many different situations(showing politeness, sorry, shy or embarrassed).

For example
Showing politeness, sorry
不好意思,打扰你了。
bùhǎoyìsī ,dǎrǎo nǐ le.
Sorry to bother you.
不好意思,我想请问一下……
bùhǎoyìsī ,wǒ xiǎng qǐngwèn yīxià ……
Excuse me, may I ask ……
不好意思,我们这里不接受现金。
bùhǎoyìsī ,wǒmen zhèlǐ bù jiēshòu xiànjīn
Sorry, we don’t accept cash here.

Shy
我很想他,但是我不好意思告诉他。
wǒ hěn xiǎng tā ,dànshì wǒ bùhǎoyìsī gàosù tā.
I miss him, but I am too shy to tell him.
别老是盯着她,她会不好意思的。
bié lǎoshì dīngzhe tā ,tā huì bùhǎoyìsī de.
Stop staring at her, she will be shy.

Embarrassed
你可能会因为犯了错误觉得不好意思。
nǐ kěnéng huì yīnwèi fàn le cuòwù juédé bùhǎoyìsī.
You may feel embarrassed about the mistakes you made.

So, Chinese people may not use duìbuqǐ a lot because people don’t normally make many serious mistakes every day, so it’s not necessary to say duìbuqǐ. But people do say bùhǎoyìsī quite a lot when causing inconvenience to others. Some times people don’t say sorry just because they don’t think it’s a big deal. Or some people are just simply rude and inconsiderate.

Now let’s talk about saying thank you. There was once when I was standing in a line with a friend from Spain, and the person in front of us let us go first because he was waiting for his friend, I said hao and went through the gate without saying thank you. My friend asked me: why didn’t you say thank you? I was embarrassed and didn’t know what to say, but that got me thinking. I say thank you a lot in my daily life and don’t consider myself as a rude person, but why didn’t I say thank you? Is it because I took other people’s kindness for granted or I am ungrateful?

Let’s look at some expressions for thank you in Chinese.
非常感谢fēi cháng gǎn xiè
Thanks a million
太谢谢你了tài xiè xiè nǐ le
Thank you so much
谢谢xiè xiè
Thank you
谢了xiè le,谢啦xiè lā
Thanks
麻烦你了má fán nǐ le
Sorry for troubling you
辛苦你了xīn kǔ nǐ le
Thank you for your effort

These words are all used very frequently by Chinese people. Most of the Chinese people think that you should say thank you when you receive help from others. But Chinese people don’t say thank you very often in general, and most of the time people are not expecting “thank you” when they offer help. For the situation I mentioned, I didn’t think that was a favour for me and I didn’t think that was a big deal, that may be the reason why I didn’t say thank you.

And one interesting fact is that in China, a lot of the people don’t say “ Thank you” to their families. There is a saying in Chinese“一家人不说两家话yì jiā rén bù shuō liǎng jiā huà”, which means you don’t need to say those polite expressions if you are family. It’s considered very normal for family members to help each other, there is no need to say thank you, and saying thank you may suggest that you are not close enough.

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