Finding a quick, appropriate response during a conversation can be challenging when developing ability in a new language.
Short, responsive words and phrases can be used to express comprehension and give an emotional response: sympathy, pity, surprise, joy, awe or thanks. Even before you speak fluently, being able to use some of these phrases helps you connect with others in conversation.
1. 那当然了! nà dāng rán le!
You totally agree, and the setting is probably rather lighthearted. Situations might include things like: A friend remarks that it’s raining again (during the rainy season); you’re asked if you’d like to join some coworkers to your favorite restaurant for lunch; or someone brings up how expensive a new BMW is. 那当然了! could be a good response to all of those situations.
2. 太可惜了! tài kě xī le!
“That’s too bad!”
Often, Chinese people who know English use “what a pity!” when they’re expressing this sentiment. You show empathy about a disappointment. Examples: A friend has to cancel social plans in order to work late; at a shop, you find a shirt you like, but your favorite color is out of stock; your reservation at a restaurant got mixed up and you’ll have to wait 15 minutes for a table.
3. 好好休息! hǎo hǎo xiū xi!
This might be said to someone who just said they’d gotten sick, or who has just finished a huge task—like exam week. Examples: A fellow student seems to have developed a cough; a coworker talks about all the extra hours put in for a sales presentation just completed; someone is about to get a week’s break from school.
4. 保重自己 bǎozhòng zìjǐ
“Take care of yourself!”
Someone has shared sad personal news, extra demands at work or school, or similar difficult circumstances, and you share empathy with them by encouraging the person not to forget to care for oneself in the midst of those difficulties. This phrase’s use overlaps with 好好休息! above.
5. 不错! bù cuò!
This is an understated phrase, though warm, and sometimes seems used for praise that comes somewhat unexpected. Situations might include: someone did a bike trick pretty well; your friend shows you their non-expert but decent sample of calligraphy; you’re eating Western food at a restaurant in China.
6. 厉害! lì hài!
This is probably used to praise another person for something they’ve done. Examples: someone is a great dancer; a friend gave you a really complex origami your friend folded for you; a driver maneuvered through chaotic traffic skillfully, preventing you from getting stuck in a traffic jam.
7. 哇 wā or 哇噻! or wā sāi
The news was good, and you’re celebrating! 哇噻! seems more common in the northeast of China; I heard 哇! more where I’ve lived in Southwest China. Examples: Your friend got a great price for that cute, new purse she has; what a great score your friend earned on a test; you just learned what a great singer your friend is during karaoke.
8. 谢谢! xiè xie!
Simple, and easy. Feel more thankful? Repeat as 谢谢, 谢谢! or 谢谢你 (xiè xie nǐ) or 太谢谢你! (tài xiè xie nǐ) (with emphasis on 太). Note that among friends and family, saying thanks directly comes off as too formal or distant. But with people you don’t yet know well, certainly do use it.
9. 你辛苦了! nǐ xīn kǔ le! or 你太辛苦了! nǐ tài xīn kǔ le!
“You’ve done so much!”
Here’s a classic way to thank a person who has helped you by doing something for you. It might be well-suited to thanking someone for preparing a wonderful meal, to thank your child’s teacher or in thanking someone who hosted you and took care of your needs during a visit.
10. 你想得这么周到! nǐ xiǎng de zhè me zhōu dào!
“This is so thoughtful of you!”
Someone has shown great attention to your needs or preferences. Perhaps he or she sent you flowers, made you your favorite meal when you visited or took care to prepare every detail of travel arrangements for you.
Politely Responding to Praise
11. 哪里哪里 nă lĭ nă lĭ
“Not at all.” (as a humble response to a compliment).
This is a famous Chinese phrase meaning, “Where? Where?” suggesting that you can’t see anything so worthy of another’s thanks or praise. However, it seems less common with younger Chinese, and even with older generations of Chinese, it can come off as too insincere if overused. Examples: a stranger says your Chinese is very good; someone praises some task you’ve done for them; someone compliments your skill or style.
12. 不敢当! bù găn dāng!
“I’m hardly all that!”
You’ve received some praise and defer it by saying you “don’t dare to be” as excellent as their praise suggests. This feels somewhat more formal than 哪里，哪里.
Situations for this phrase may include when someone introduces you as a non-native Chinese speaker with incredible Mandarin, someone says you’re the best mom or dad they know or a coworker suggests that you’re certain to be promoted since you’re so talented and hard-working.
13. 彼此彼此! bĭ cĭ bĭ cĭ!
“Right back at you!”
Someone has complimented you, and you politely receive the compliment by saying that they, too, are worthy of the same praise.
However, the Chinese is more formal than the American phrase “back at you!” Don’t say this to someone who’s your boss or other authority figure, use the above mentioned 不敢当! instead. Examples: A peer coworker compliments your excellent work, a friend you often visit for dinner compliments your cooking skills or sometimes tells you how nice you look today.
14. 我还在努力! wǒ hái zài nǔ lì!
“I’ve got a long way to go!”
More literally, this means “I’m still working hard.” Someone has complimented your (fairly functional) Chinese or other skill, and you reply by suggesting you’re still working at that skill. This is my own preferred way to defer any compliments about my Chinese, because it feels so real to me: there truly is always more to know and improvement to be made. Any skill from performing music to language ability to playing a sport could be in view with this response.
Expressing Disgust or Surprise
15. 哎呀! āi yā!
“Oh no!” (Expressing disbelief, disgust and/or irritation)
Examples: you just stepped in something; you dropped your coffee cup; you stubbed your toe; or you had a bad hair day you can’t fix.
16. 真讨厌! zhēn tǎo yàn!
Expressing disgust for what you heard described, or what you just saw: a nasty bug just crawled across the floor; your trashcan is really smelly; or someone’s behavior is inappropriate and rude.
17. 真没想到! zhēn méi xiǎng dào!
“Who would’ve thought!”
This response shows you’re listening to someone telling you somewhat surprising news, whether good or bad. Examples: you arrive at a popular restaurant only to find it’s closed; every weather report predicted snow, but instead the weather is sunny and warm; or the parking garage at the mall has filled on a weekday early afternoon.
18. 原来是这样! yuán lái shì zhèyàng! or 原来如此! yuán lái rú cǐ
“So it turned out it’s that way!”
Something turned out differently than previous expectations or experience suggested. Examples: your friend corrects your confusion about the meaning of a Chinese word; your landlord points to a clause in the lease that shows why you’re expected to pay six months of rent at a time; or someone explains to you about different Chinese regional cooking styles.
Keep That Conversation Going
19. 真的吗? zhēn de ma?
Showing that what you heard impressed you in some way, and you want to hear more about it. Appropriate situations: A friend tells you he signed up for an online dating service; while shopping, your friend suggests you try on a blouse you aren’t sure about; a friend announces that she’s just gotten engaged.
20. 就是 jiù shì
“That’s just it.”
You really agree with the person you’re talking with. Perhaps you’re discussing what that flavor must be in the noodle dish you’re sharing, and he suggests it’s Sichuan peppercorn; after exercising, your workout buddy suggests that you must be thirsty; or someone asks if your apartment really is on the top floor of the building.
21. 嗯 èn or 哦 ò
“Ahh…” or “uh huh” (depending on your intonation.)
A firm downward tone shows affirmation; a rising tone shows questioning or surprise.
Using these interjections shows that you’re listening attentively without interrupting the other person speaking. Switching your version of “um” or “uh huh” to more Chinese-sounding interjections helps reduce some of the sense of social distance caused by different languages. Just don’t overuse them!
22. 你是说。。。nǐ shì shuō… or 那是说。。。 nà shì shuō…
“So you mean to say…”
Indicating that you’re going to rephrase what the other speaker said, but in your own words, to sum up and check that you understood. This phrase can also give you a moment to collect your thoughts. After hearing someone describe their opinion of a situation, you might use this phrase to introduce your rephrasing of their main points.
Post time: Jul-13-2020