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From what I have learned, one should address a waiter or waitress as 先生 or 小姐. However, I have also seen the case (I believe it was in a drama) of addressing them as the general term 服務生 or 服務員. As far as I know, calling a waiter or waitress literally by waiter or waitress in the States is not so common and not preferred by some people. Is this the same for Chinese?

Also, what is the proper way to get the attention of a waiter or waitress when, say, the restaurant is too noisy or the waiter/waitress is too far away?

Thank you!

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From what I have learned, the most proper and respectful is to use 服务员. There are many people that find 小姐 not appropriate or too traditional, I met several people who feel that 小姐 has some sexist note. The same goes for 美女 that many people use but not everyone feels comfortable to hear. 帅哥 for male 服务员 is less a problem as long as they are at the same age or younger and people definitely get served more quickly if they use this expression. After all you wouldn't use 美女 on somebody that is obviously older than you. Not to forget about the term 阿姨 that is a term of respect for a woman that is older than you, though not common in a restaurant, but you sure can use it in a small street noodle store (along with 叔叔 for male) where it can get more personal. I myself also often just use 你好 to address a service person.

  • Hmm...I always thought 小姐 is equivalent to miss in English and is therefore a polite term. I should be careful from now on... – Thomas Hsieh Apr 21 '15 at 2:07
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    I think your question is very good by the way, just because many people use certain terms it does not mean it's the "appropriate" way to do. I hear 小姐 used from time to time in restaurants. Comparison with English might be more like "Thank you, darling" to a young girl that brings you some coffee. I personally also think it's "okaaaay but kindaa weird".. Sidenote: Several people in China spit on the streets for intance, but many Chinese are disgusted with this behavior, but tolerate it. – Flaudre Apr 21 '15 at 2:23
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    It probably depends on the location but 小姐 is also slang for a prostitute, so that's why I avoid using this term. – Suragch Apr 21 '15 at 3:14
  • @Suragch No wonder it's inappropriate... Thank you both for the information! – Thomas Hsieh Apr 21 '15 at 3:22
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More of an FYI than a response/advice, but in some more (rural?) parts of China, you'll hear the term 姑娘 (gu1 niang, meaning girl, usually younger) thrown around in restaurants. It sort of has a "damsel" connotation to it.

I probably wouldn't use it unless you are an old (chinese) person from the countryside, but if you are already a fluent speaker, might get you some street cred in certain circles.

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Here in Nanjing I mostly just hear ‘服务员’ but the '务‘ gets swallowed, so it comes out as '服员‘。Seems a bit abrupt, but I've never seen anyone take offence at this, so it must be acceptable.

  • I find this quite surprising! I thought courtesy is taken seriously and strictly in Chinese-speaking communities. Thank you! – Thomas Hsieh Apr 21 '15 at 0:51
  • Yeah, I always find it sounds a bit bossy, but I have been in a lot of restaurants in Nanjing, cheap ones, expensive ones. I hear this very often. 服员,再带大块肉,大碗酒!(last bit just a joke) – Pedroski Apr 21 '15 at 1:01
  • Haha i see. I guess it suggests some kind of friendliness as well. – Thomas Hsieh Apr 21 '15 at 1:06
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    This is also the common way to address a waiter/waitress in north China, with the addition of 儿话. Sometimes newcomers make jokes that it sounds like "foo you are!" – Suragch Apr 21 '15 at 3:18
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You may see 小二 in classical Chinese novels, or 伙计 in small restaurants.

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