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How to Address a Stranger in Chinese


Introduction - 亲 (qīn)  vs. 亲爱的 (qīn ài de) 

If you’ve ever shopped on Taobao, a Chinese website that’s kind of like Amazon or eBay, then you’ve probably been called “qīn (亲)" by a complete stranger before.

Vendors on Taobao call buyers “qīn,” which is actually a term of endearment. Calling someone “qīn” is like calling them “dear,” and it’s short for “qīn ài de (亲爱的)".

Let me explain why I think this is interesting.

Actually, calling someone “qīn” is really just an abbreviated form of a standard polite letter salutation, as in “Qīn ài de [name], nín hǎo! (亲爱的 [name], 您好!)" , which means “Dear [name], hello!”

But the thing is, by shortening it to just “qīn,” it becomes much more casual and much more personal, like something that would normally be used between people who are actually very familiar with and fond of each other.

Before I get into why I think complete strangers online use the word “qīn” with each other, let me give you another example of an odd word choice.

Addressing people by 美女 (měi nǚ)  and 帅哥 (shuài gē) 

One way that people in China often address women who they don’t know is 美女 (měi nǚ), as in, “Hey, měi nǚ, is my grande caramel latte ready yet?”

“Měi nǚ” means “beautiful woman” or “beautiful girl,” so the first time someone called me 美女 (měi nǚ), I was so flattered.

By calling me “měi nǚ” instead of “miss” or “madam,” the shop assistant instantly created a connection between us and made me feel good.  But the nice, flattered feeling only lasted for about 10 seconds, until I noticed that she was calling every female in the shop “měi nǚ.”

As I learned that day, any girl or woman can be called “mĕi nǚ” these days, and when used this way, calling someone “měi nǚ” isn’t really a comment on her looks, despite the actual meaning of the word.

The same thing happens with males now too. Some people will call any random guy 帅哥 (shuài gē), which means “handsome man,” with no regard for whether he is actually good-looking or not. 

So why do people use these words? 

My guess is, if you’re trying to sound casual, friendly, and approachable towards someone whose name you don't know, it’s tough to come up with a better alternative. This is especially true if you’re trying to create a personal connection with him or her.

For example, I think 亲 (qīn) became the standard way for Taobao vendors to address customers because, compared to using other more traditional ways of addressing a customer, the term 亲 (qīn) is a clever way for the vendor to create a sense of closeness and familiarity with the buyer.

Besides, it also keeps the mood of the conversation light and casual, which is important when the interactions are happening online and you can’t rely on body language or tone of voice.

Even so, it is a bit strange to call just anyone “qīn” or “měi nǚ” or “shuài gē,” and there are plenty of people in China who cringe a bit when they hear others use these words so liberally. Let’s talk about the alternatives:

Alternative 1 – 小姐 (xiǎo jǐe) 

This term, which means “miss,” is not only restricted by age, but can seem overly formal and can have some negative connotations.  

It’s no longer really appropriate to use this term with a woman who has reached her thirties or so.  It’s commonly used with someone’s last name, such as 王小姐 (wáng xiǎo jǐe)  without any connotations, good or bad.  

But, when used on its own, it's often to either address someone formally or to call to women who work in the service industry, especially waitresses. 

And in some parts of China, “xiǎo jǐe” is a term used to refer to a prostitute. So you can see why some people hesitate to use this word in some contexts.

Alternative 2 – 女士 (nǚ shì) 

This term means “madam” or “lady” and is generally used for women over 40 or so. 

It’s very polite, and often too polite for many settings. Add that to the fact that it’s only used for older ladies, and you’ve got plenty of room for the possibility of having an awkward interaction or even offending someone. 

It’s just not a word that you want to use when you’re trying to create a personal connection or keep the tone light.

Alternative 3 – 先生 (xiān sheng) 

This means “sir” or “mister.” 

Just like the English equivalents, it can be used for males of all ages, married or unmarried, so there’s no worry about offending someone in that way. 

But like 小姐 (xiǎo jǐe) and 女士 (nǚ shì), the word 先生 (xiān sheng) is just a bit stiff and mostly used in a polite situation, so not the best choice for a more casual interaction.

Alternative 4 – 同志 (tóng zhì) 

Okay, this is not really a viable alternative. 

This means “comrade” and was commonly used in mainland China for a period, but hasn’t been used anymore for years. Actually, it’s now mostly used to refer to homosexuals. 

I only list this word here because, purely from a linguistic standpoint, I think it’s a kind of a shame that 同志 (tóng zhì) isn’t used anymore. Back in the day, just about anyone could safely use it with anyone else, without any worry of offending someone. 

As you can see, you’re not left with many choices if you want to get someone’s attention but don’t know his/her name, and you don’t want to just say “hey.” 

So without many alternatives to choose from, people got creative and started using other words that originally had a different meaning or were used in different contexts.


Now, the final question is, should YOU start using words like 美女 (měi nǚ) and 帅哥 (shuài gē) to call out to strangers? 

That depends on the situation and the message that you are trying to convey. Do keep in mind that a girl calling a girl "美女 (měi nǚ)" and a guy calling a girl "美女 (měi nǚ)” can come across quite differently. The same goes for 帅哥 (shuài gē).  

I don’t know if anyone actually gets offended by being called 美女 (měi nǚ) or 帅哥 (shuài gē), but I do know that some people still find these terms a bit awkward, even though they can’t think of a better alternative. 

As for me, maybe I’m just getting old, but personally, I rarely use these words. I generally find them to be a little too flirtatious for my style.

The only time I might use these words is, for example, in a bar or some place like that with a very casual atmosphere, and I’d only use it to joke around with people who are quite young, say 25 or younger. 

In the right setting, it can be a fun way to get a smile from someone who’s not expecting to be called that by a foreigner. But if in doubt, and you just want to play it safe, you can always just say "你好 (nǐ hǎo)" to get someone’s attention.

Leave a comment!

If I were in the habit of using those words, I’d probably end this post by saying something like this: “So, how about all you 帅哥们 (shuāi gē men) and 美女们 (měi nǚ men) out there?" Would you ever call a complete stranger 帅哥 (shuài gē) or 美女 (měi nǚ)? And would you feel awkward or even offended if someone else called you that, or would it actually make you feel good? 

Please leave us a comment, and in the spirit of a friendly online chat, feel free to begin your comment with the word "亲 (qīn)"!

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JULIE THA GYAW is one of the course designers and script writers for Yoyo Chinese. She has lived in China for more than a decade teaching Mandarin, and holds a Master's degree in Chinese from Middlebury College. Her biggest and most challenging project these days is learning how to teach her one-year-old son both English and Chinese.

Tue, 08 Jul 2014 02:00:00 GMT

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