As already explained in the post “Your Welcome in Chinese”, being polite in Chinese is quite easy. Chinese people are very direct when compared with their Korean or Japanese counterparts, and they don’t get offended very easily. Saying “please” in Chinese is actually less complicated than in English. English uses many expressions like “would”, “could”, “can” and it can be very formal sometimes. Chinese, however, tends to be very direct when it comes to politeness.
What is more, every English speaker should avoid the mistake of being “too polite” for the Chinese standards. When it comes to giving requests, people from countries that are very polite actually struggle a lot with adapting to the new “impolite” standards. We put “impolite” in quotation marks because what sounds impolite to us, may not be so for people from other cultures. It is not a thing that is commonly discussed in language learning, but it is still important.
This is why one of our most common mistakes is to literally translate a request from our language to Chinese, to the point when it sounds excessively polite and unnatural for Chinese speakers. We will explain it further below.
- The Chinese word for “please”:
The Chinese word for “please” is easy and it is 请 [qǐng] (請 in Taiwan). In order to ask for something, we put 请 in front of the sentence.
请你们保持安静 [qǐng nǐmen bǎochí ānjìng] – Please remain calm.
我要请你姐姐来帮忙我 [wǒ yào qǐng nǐ jiějiě lái bāngmáng wǒ] – I want to ask your sister to help me.
请系上安全带 [qǐng jìshang ānquándài] – Please fasten the seatbelt.
请您穿好救生衣 [qǐng nín chuānhǎo jiùshēngyī] – Please wear life vest.
请戴口罩 [qǐng dài kǒuzhào] – Please wear a mask.
Note the context of the sentences above, especially the three last ones: we can encounter them in official situations, so the request should be more polite. You are likely to see them in public spaces, especially if followed by the polite “you” form 您 [nín]. They are formal requests, therefore请 was used.
However, even in this situation 请 is not always necessary. A Chinese public request may also say:
进入医院必须戴口罩 [jìnrù yīyuàn bìxū dài kǒuzhào] – Wearing mask is mandatory when entering the hospital.
2. Other meaning of 请
请 is also commonly used as a word for “invite”.
请同事吃饭 [qǐng tóngshì chī fàn] – To ask a co-worker for a meal.
请教授发言 [qǐng jiàoshòu fāyán] – To invite a professor to give a speech. It can be also translated as: Let’s invite the professor to give a speech.
If you want to express yourself more formally, a proper word would be 邀請 [yāoqǐng]. It is not only verb, but also a noun.
接受邀请 [jiēshòu yāoqǐng] – To accept invitation. Note that we don’t say “接受请” since 请 is not a noun.
非常感謝你的邀請 [fēicháng gǎnxiè nǐde yāoqǐng] – Thank you very much for your invitation.
他被邀请了参加科学座谈会 [tā bèi yāoqǐng le cānjiā kēxué zuòtánhuì] – He was invited to attend a scientific forum.
3. When not to use 请
A standard dictionary will tell you that 请 means “please”, but will not explain when is the correct time to say it. Since you are a foreigner and you may be worried about offending someone on your first trip to China, you may feel a need to use 请 in every situation that involves giving even a small request.
As mentioned above, one of the mistakes that foreign learners do is literally translating requests from their native language into Chinese. Such sentences are often grammatically correct– from the grammar perspective, there is nothing wrong with putting 请 in front of a request sentence – but they sound unnatural or excessively polite for Chinese native speakers. In reality, you will be rarely using 请 in your daily life. Unless you work in Chinese customer service.
Take this situation as an example: you are in a noodle store and you want to order a bowl of beef noodles. You probably first thought of saying: 请你给我一份牛肉面 [qǐng nǐ gěi wǒ yīfēn niú ròu miàn], since it is an English level of politeness. However, a Chinese person will never say it. Instead they just say 一份牛肉面 (a bowl of beef noodles). Sounds rude, but in Chinese it is natural.
If you feel it is too “extreme” for you, you can add 谢谢 [xiè xiè] (thank you) in the end: 一份牛肉面, 谢谢. It is not necessary, but it might be a good compromise between what is natural in Chinese and comfortable for you.
To sum up, when you talk to a waiter or any person from customer service, 请 is not necessary. Many people in China don’t say 谢谢, neither, although nothing stops you from doing that if you want.
When asking a friend for a favor, you can use other words, since 请 would sound excessively formal. There is one very good word: 可以 [kěyǐ], which means “can”. You can also add the word 帮 [bāng], which means “help”, in the middle of the sentence. It stresses the fact that they are helping you. Actually, you can also use 可以 even when you ask a stranger on the street (but you may first say 对不起 [duìbùqǐ] when interrupting).
你可以来帮我一下吗？[nǐ kěyǐ lái bāng wǒ yīxià] – Can you come over to help me?
你可以帮我去找老师吗？[nǐ kěyǐ bāng wǒ qù zhǎo lǎoshī ma] – Can you go and search for the teacher (for me)?
Other way to ask a friend for help is by only using 帮. It is more direct than 可以.
帮我丢掉这个 [bāng wǒ diūdiào zhège] – Please throw it away.
你帮我拿这个，谢谢 [nǐ bāng wǒ ná zhège，xiè xiè] – Please take it, thanks.
Remember that being less polite actually indicates that you are friends with somebody. In fact, being too polite can make your Chinese friends feel that they are not really your friends. Therefore, it is better to forget for a moment about our own cultural norms and learn with the native speakers.
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