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When I ask a stranger for directions or other information I begin with 请问. It is especially important for me to use some opening phrase since people do not expect a foreigner to speak Chinese to them, and my accent is far from great. But I wonder if many Chinese speakers actually use this themselves. Is it polite? formal? old-fashioned?

Would something else be better?

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    Yes, Chinese speakers also use this, it's like "excuse me" in English. Or you could say hello and then proceed with your question. – Gao Jan 31 '15 at 16:12
  • It's perfectly OK, I would probably never ask anything from a stranger without introducing the question. An alternative could be 我想问一下,... – imrek Jan 31 '15 at 18:40
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    Like Gao Weiwei said you might add a, and I know this sounds cliché, 你好 or or at the beginning to soften your tone a little. Likewise, you can tack a 一下 on the end of 请问 to make it sound a little more pleasing to the ear. 请问, while polite, can come across startling without the aforementioned. – Mou某 Feb 1 '15 at 11:02
  • Oh yes I always say 你好. That is polite but I don't think of it as saying anything since it does not help people realize I will speak Chinese. 你好 is the one thing that foreigners can all say! – Colin McLarty Feb 1 '15 at 12:26
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Before I want to ask a stranger, I will try to get their attention first.

Saying 您好/你好 (Hello/Hi) before starting my question, then 对不起打扰了,请问 or just 请问 (Excuse Me) and followed by the question.

您好,请问附近的医院是往哪个方向? 
嘿,打扰了,请问附近的医院是往哪个方向?
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  • A friend suggested that in Beijing anyway it is normal to use 您好 with people you don't know. That seems right to me but I could not claim I've heard enough conversations to know what people mostly say. What do you think? – Colin McLarty Feb 1 '15 at 20:03
  • That was right, no matter which chinese country you went. The most important thing is to get their attention politely, so 您好 is the best choice. Or you can call them before saying 您好. If you met a young man, you can say 年轻人 你好; If you met an old man, you can say 爷爷 您好 – Raynoceros Feb 2 '15 at 4:10
  • Ah! The one thing that every foreigner in China can say, and half of everyone in the US knows, is not the best way to say it! In the US everyone learns from 凯兰 and no one is a stranger to her. – Colin McLarty Feb 2 '15 at 16:23
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Chinese people often use this expression.

The old-fashioned method is much more complex. In ancient China, there are lot of form of addresses like modest words, taboo words, circuitous words and prefixes.

A comment mentioned 年轻人 你好 , I do NOT recommend to say something like this to a young man especially if you are young. Because improper usage makes you like an old man, talking to a little child, they'll feel offended.
However, if you are old enough , it's safe and even makes the atmosphere more relaxed.
One mentioned 嘿(hei,hey),it's only safe to foreigner to say. Chinese won't use the word to start a conversion between strangers in real life except for somebody just wanted to draw one's attention in a direct way.

Today in China, apart from the answers, different regions in China have different expressions.
你好(Nihao) is too ordinary for a foreigner. We can use some regional expression.

  • In most part of China especially northeast we can call a man 兄弟(XiongDi,brother)
  • In most part of China like Shandong we can call a man 师傅(ShiFu,master worker)
  • In JiangXi,GuiZhou we can call a man 老表(LaoBiao,cousion)
  • In SiChuan, ChongQing we can call a man 哥子(GeZi,brother)
  • etc.....

When you talk to a female, remember not to call she 小姐(XiaoJie),though in formal occasion we use the expression to refer to a young girl.
Because in recent years the word attached another meaning which means pro sti tute. We'd better to make them sounds younger if you are not certain about her name.

  • A madam you can call her 大姐(Dajie, elder sister)
  • A girl you can call her 姑娘(GuNiang)
  • An old lady you can call her 大妈(Dama), also can be 大娘(DaNiang) but not so universal
  • etc...

Besides, we can call a young man 帅哥(ShuaiGe,Handsome guy),a girl even a madam(MeiNv,beautiful girl) around China.
In GuangDong here is a pair of expression has the same meaning: 靓仔(cool guy),靓女(cool girl).

With the expressions above, you can start a talk without saying 你好:

帅哥,西湖该怎么走?(Guy,how can I get to the West Lake ?)
师傅,你知道哪里有加油站吗?(Master worker,do you know where is the gas station?)
美女,你能帮我看看这个字怎么读么?(Beautiful girl,will you (please) help me find out how to pronounce the word? )

The most important thing is speak naturally, if you speak not fluently, it's embarrassing to repeat many times.

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  • Sadly, I could call most men 年轻人 and they would feel I was right. – Colin McLarty Feb 2 '15 at 18:32
  • it's all because your are foreigner, if I (a Chinese boy) do that, mostly they'll not response. I bet they feel not comfortable deep inside. 帅哥 is best choose,at least for me. – chilau Feb 2 '15 at 18:54
  • Oh it is worse than that. On the Beijing Metro people often offer me a seat and explain "You are old!" – Colin McLarty Feb 2 '15 at 18:58
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    The next time you meet them you can say,帅哥/美女你们坐吧,我大老爷们(Da Lao Ye Men,as such an 'old' man)不 碍事(matter) – chilau Feb 2 '15 at 19:07
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You can also use "麻烦问一下", which means Excuse me

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There are already many suggestions to you, right?

But if you really worried about "since people do not expect a foreigner to speak Chinese" then I will give you a way to say it.

Suppose there comes a 年轻人, you could approach to him and say,

(In English) Hello, do you speak Chinese? and then,

(In Chinese) Ni Jiang Zhong Wen Ma?

There will be a very short time of silence, and then LOL both of you.

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