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When I was in China, I heard people using 不好意思 to apologize casually. I also heard the expression 对不住 in TV series and movies. Is there any differences?

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I raise goosebumps when I hear 不好意思 is used in the place of excuse me. –  George Chen Sep 11 at 17:26
    
不好意思 is a phrase from the south. When used at the beginning, it means "this is embarassing." Then they will tell you something like it's too late to order breakfast. –  George Chen Sep 11 at 17:39
    
Then again, the south is more civilized. –  George Chen Sep 11 at 18:35

7 Answers 7

up vote 2 down vote accepted

对不起(*): Sorry/Excuse me

对不住: Ditto (colloquial). I'd assume it is mainly used by northern Chinese

不好意思(*): Excuse me (colloquial)

* Other meanings exist in different contexts, e.g. 对不起=let somebody down, 不好意思=be embarrassed, etc.

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对不住 is the form used in Cantonese, so obviously not nothern chinese! (In Cantonese do not use 对不起) –  Earth Engine Mar 4 at 10:42
    
@EarthEngine I didn't know that, but I assume we are talking about mandarin here –  agriprop Mar 4 at 10:55
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In Cantonese use "對唔住", its very close to 對不住. But still, we use 對不住 in mandarin. In my opinion, 對不住 has a little more thought about failing somebody's expectation. –  Yafufu Mar 18 at 10:28

I may be wrong, but I always equated 对不住 with 辜负. As some of the above posters have said, 对不起 is a little bit formal, and, at least in my experience, not used too often. 不好意思 is what you generally hear. When I was living in mainland China, it seemed rare to hear 对不起, especially among friends. My Chinese friends often thought it was strange when I would say sorry to them, as we were friends and that formality seemed to put an unnecessary distance between us. It seemed to be the same for 谢谢.

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I'll draw some comparisons with Japanese.

不好意思 is similar to Sumimasen (すみません), which means excuse me/sorry, depending on context. It's a more lighter version of 对不起.

对不起 is more similar to Gomenasai, which is very deep, like if you did something wrong that you really regret and wish you can undo the mistake.

Examples: 
不好意思, 我们的面了卖完了。(Sorry, but our noodles are sold out.) (More formal in this sentence)
对不起, 我们的面了卖完了。(Sorry, but our noodles are sold out.) (More informal but usable.)
对不起, 我错了. (I'm sorry, it's my fault.)
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Your comparison to Japanese is very interesting. But your answer is missing the meaning of 对不住. Really good answer nevertheless. –  OOEngineer Feb 27 at 15:31
    
对不住 is more northern version of 对不起. So the usage is the same, just replace 对不起 with 对不住. On a side note, 对不住 is not used as an interjection meaning I'm sorry in Hokkien. 歹勢 (phái-sè) or 失禮 (sit-lé) instead. 歹勢 is commonly used when I speak Hokkien to other people. –  user3992 Feb 27 at 15:58

I am not a linguist, so I will just speak my mind. There's not too much difference between 对不起 and 不好意思. But 对不住 is more formal, it often means does not live up to someone's expectations.

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对不起 = It's my fault, I'm fully and directly responsible for this, this is not pleasant. I'm a loser in this incident.

不好意思 = This is not pleasant, however it's not my fault (or not totally my fault), I'm not fully responsible for this. I'm not the loser in this incident. avoiding to admit the mistake as own fault.

The usage of these two phrase are similar but quite different if compare to the word "Sorry" in English.

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对不起 More formal,对不住 and 不好意思 colloquial。不好意思 is a polysemy word,means shy

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对不起: Literally means "can't make it right". Carries the connotation of being in the wrong.

不好意思: Means something like, "that was bad". Describes the action more than the character of the one saying it.

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