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I've noticed in China that people don't tend to use as many 'polite' words as we do in western languages, like 'please' or 'thank you'. I want to make it clear that I'm not complaining about this; I find that such niceties are often overused in English, to the point where they become insincere.

In English I would automatically say 'thanks' whenever someone does something for me. In China I found I got some quizzical looks doing this with 谢谢 (xiè xie).

Perhaps another example is in restaurants where I've heard people screaming 服务员! (fú wù yuán) across the room, whereas westerners would raise a hand, or try to make eye contact, or say 'excuse me'.

So my question is, in China, how polite is too polite? When is it appropriate to use things like 谢谢 or 麻烦你 (má fan nǐ), and when should I restrain the impulse to avoid sounding weird?

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Most of the time a nod would do it. –  Kabie Dec 20 '11 at 11:10
    
I was about to ask this, only related to 谢谢, but I see you did first :D +1 –  Alenanno Jan 14 '12 at 11:51
    
My teacher says 谢谢 a lot, sometimes several times in a row when she is thanking or praising a student. (She does the same with 好.) With regards to yelling across the restaurant: I wouldn't say that chinese are less polite to waiters. They just don't consider that to be impolite. Likewise, there are some things Chinese consider to be polite that Westerners are ambivalent about (such as not properly pouring tea for somebody else). –  mehaase May 16 '12 at 0:34
    
My Chinese friends made up an English word- "no q" to mean "don't say thank you". They would say it whenever I said thanks. –  Phil Aug 16 '13 at 7:46
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6 Answers 6

up vote 11 down vote accepted

My friends use 谢谢 all the time, so even if someone pours them a drink for the 10th time they will still say 谢谢. One thing I noticed when I first started learning was that how I said it sounded too exaggerated, so it was coming across like I was trying to thank someone for saving my life when it was just supposed to be a simple thanks. So maybe try toning it down slightly.

麻烦你 is also quite similar to the English "sorry to trouble you". Don't use this when you haven't troubled someone. So, use it if you have to ask someone to unexpectedly baby sit your children, but not when you ask someone to pass the salt. However, this can be used with grumpy shop keepers (occasionally heard sarcastically) if they reluctantly have to get something off the top shelf or out of its packaging and you decide you don't want to buy it.

Please is hardly used as mentioned.

There are plenty of niceties that you may have not noticed yet that are practiced regularly and not done in the West. Such as standing up when someone new enters a room, regularly offering food or drink to guests, regular giving of gifts etc.

I would say polite things are done as often as the West, just done in a different way.

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Personally I find that younger Chinese are more likely to use 谢谢 to thank someone than older people are. Perhaps origin (i.e. more developed areas vs less developed ones) also plays a factor. –  Bjorn Dec 21 '11 at 20:27
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The only thing I can add to this is that with close friends you should be wary of using 谢谢 too much! My Chinese friend once told me that, because of our friendship, it should be obvious that we are thankful for the kind things that we each do for one another and that it can actually create the feeling of distance in a relationship rather than closeness. I have since found this to be good advice.

In terms of daily life each situation is unique and its learning to judge the situation, rather than learning a set of rules regarding politeness that would be the best way forward.

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We(I think) would like to say thanks to people who help us, however, we don't usually like to say thanks to people who serve us with a cup of tea. It is weird, yes compared to westerns. There maybe one reason for this (maybe significant): In China 'thanks' is a heavy word, we reluctant to say this all the time while a simple replay would mean a lightweight version of 'thanks', for example, say 'good' to the guy who bring a cup of tea to you. (pure personal opinion!)

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This is a subjective question, to some people polite words 谢谢 or thanks do not mean much of a thing. (It is just 'niceties' making you appear to be 0.1% that much more polite to them)

So my verdict: It depends (does not matter whether it is English or Chinese, or whether young or old)

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Cantonese really has a nice distinction here, between "thanks for doing that", 唔該 (m4 goi1), and 多謝 (do1 ze6) for receiving something of great or tangible value. You'd say 唔該 to a waiter and 多謝 to a co-worker who recommended you for a promotion.

In Mandarin, I've always erred towards too polite, saying 谢谢 or 多谢 for everyday interactions and 非常感谢 when I really meant it, or wanted to be really sarcastic :) My observation has been that average Chinese people amongst themselves don't generally feel bad about not having a way to verbalize thanks in everyday situations - it's really not expected. I do think, however, that as a foreigner (as you probably are if you're learning Chinese as a second language) it's always better to be too polite. Just my 2 .

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I find that at least in Taiwan, people tend to go with the less formal and more fluent 谢啦.

A silent politeness favorite of mine is lightly tapping your fingers against the table, thus thanking someone for pouring tea (or similar) without interrupting the conversation.

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Interesting, thanks. Is 谢啦 only used in Taiwan? (I haven't heard it on the mainland) –  Cocowalla Dec 22 '11 at 9:20
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Not sure, haven't heard it there either. But it's a big mainland ;) –  Lars Andren Dec 22 '11 at 21:41
    
@Cocowalla '谢啦' is quite common in mainland as well. –  Bolu Jan 9 at 12:35
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