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In response to kindnesses I sometimes say "不好意思了" and I don't think there has ever been a misunderstanding. But as an English speaker I feel unsure how this is different from saying "不好意思" for a bad thing. Can anyone advise on how the two meaning differ in use?

Does 了 occur here only in response to a kindness, and not in describing a bad thing?

Let me give an example. A friend took me to see a friend of hers who gave me a thoughtful gift. I said "thank you." Everyone involved spoke enough English but later I thought "thank you" was not the right thing to say. In English I could have said "this is too kind of you," or in Mandarin 不好意思了. My friend confirmed that in her opinion those would have been better. And I normally do say 不好意思了 at times like this.

It was not a case of any problem either with the gift or my gratitude. It was just a case where I should have been more modest. Maybe such things are always clear from context but I wonder if there are points of usage aside from context to distinguish the agreeable sense of 不好意思 from the sense of something wrong.

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不好意思了 is 不好意思+了, so this is basically the question when one would use 了? –  user58955 Jan 23 at 19:57
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3 Answers

up vote 7 down vote accepted

不好意思 has two meanings which are quite similar but applied differently. Quoting from 汉典 (English translation mine):

①表示碍于情面而只能怎样或不便怎样。(to indicate a face-saving compromise)

This is usually used as a form of acknowledgement and indirect acceptance of another person's kindness or generosity when none is expected. The person saying it usually has little choice, either because he is in desperate need for help or it would make the situation embarrassing if he refuses the generosity.

②害羞;难为情。(feel shy or embarrassed about the situation)

This is used in situations where one would feel embarrassed for troubling someone else. The level of embarrassment can be quite abysmal though, especially when spoken in sarcasm or when used for very minor things like asking for directions.

Does 了 occur here only in response to a kindness, and not in describing a bad thing?

To answer your question, 了, does not determine the meaning of 不好意思. The reason why you may think so is due to the way you apply the first meaning of 不好意思 at the end of a sentence. Some examples to demonstrate why this is not necessarily the case:

  • 真不好意思,又让您破费了。(without 了 ①)
  • 不好意思,厕所在哪里?(asking for directions ②)
  • 她被夸得不好意思。(counter example ②)
  • 不好意思大家,我已经上岸了,你们继续摸石头吧。(counter example with sarcasm ②)
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It is also used as a modest response to an invitation, or a gift, or other. I am concerned that I might sometime use the phrase intending to express modest acceptance, and yet get the nuance wrong so that it sounds like I am saying something is wrong.

Yes, what you said is right!

"不好意思" is something like "I'm sorry but I want to……can you help me". Here you know that "I'm sorry" doesn't mean to make an apology to others but just a starting an expression when you wanna make a very tiny trouble(e.g: You wanna others help you……). Or maybe others will spend a lot of time, energy, ect on your task while helping you.

Sometimes it means "Excuse me":

不好意思,想问如何去一号线?Excuse me, how can I go to Metro 1?

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了 refers to a completed/past event/action, or intensifier.

So as user58955 said, they're the same meaning. Adding 了 just

  • specifies the past: Q: 你吃过这个东西吗? A: 吃了。
  • intensifier: 没有了! = 我什么都没有 (I think I saw this in a Chinese movie where the guy lost his house in a bet. Then was yelling 没有了 in the streets. Forgot the movie though.) So, 没有了有时候形容一种状态。 没有有表示结果。我觉得大同小异。

Usage of 了 and 以后 should help you clarify usage of 了 。

As far as the phrase 不好意思 (lit: bad meaning/intention) itself, it's a 客气/礼貌 response to:

  • disturbing someone: 不好意思,现在几点呢? (or can sub 麻烦你了 or 请问)
  • doing something that bothered someone: 我忘了叫你跟我们一起吃饭。不好意思。
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I am not asking about了. I understand that pretty well. But 不好意思 is not only used for disturbing someone or bothering them. It is also used as a modest response to an invitation, or a gift, or other. I am concerned that I might sometime use the phrase intending to express modest acceptance, and yet get the nuance wrong so that it sounds like I am saying something is wrong. –  Colin McLarty Jan 23 at 23:50
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It is the same thing essentially. 不好意思 is used when you are doing what you are not supposed to be doing. That is the reason why you can respond with 不好意思 when accepting a gift (this is the Chinese culture). The rest is the usage of 了, such as 太不好意思了 (太...了) –  user58955 Jan 24 at 21:29
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