I always wonder whether there is any difference between these four terms to say "excuse me" or "sorry". The difference between 对不起 and 不好意思 is explained in this question, but I'm not sure about the differences when you add more similar words into the mix.

The situation I want to ask about is:

  1. Saying "Excuse me" to ask a person on the street for a direction or call a waiter in cafe.

  2. Saying "Sorry" when I want to apologize for something that I made a mistake on.

In these use cases, what is the main difference of these words? I know 请问 doesn't have the "sorry" meaning, though...

  • It may be helpful to mention that 劳驾 is also used for situation #1. If I'm not mistaken... – goPlayerJuggler Dec 12 '16 at 13:44
up vote 10 down vote accepted

对不起 is the phrase for apologizing for anything, for generally saying sorry. This is what you would normally say in situation 2.

请问 means "may I ask...?"; it is used to introduce a question and not to apologize for anything. You can use this when asking for direction (situation 1). But note: because of what it means, it must be followed by a question (otherwise it sounds incomplete). Therefore you would not use it just to attract a waiter's attention – although once you have his attention you can use it to ask whether they have anything you particularly want.

不好意思 indicates that the speaker is humbly embarrassed about something; it is used e.g. to politely refuse a gift. Basically it's used when the speaker doesn't want to appear to be taking advantage of the other person's hospitality or goodwill.

抱歉 is less common than the others; it is like 对不起 but more formal.

1. Saying "Excuse me" to ask a person on the street for a direction or call a waiter in a cafe.

In this case, you are apologizing in advance for inconvenience someone (you are about to interrupt someone from his routine and take up his time). Both 不好意思 and 对不起 can be used for this kind of situation. It is basically a polite phrase for getting someone's attention.

However, 不好意思 is more preferable than 对不起 because the former indicates "it is an embarrassment" in your part. You are in the process of seeking help from that person; while the latter implies " you are about to offend someone".

2. Saying "Sorry" when I want to apologize for something that I made a mistake on.

In this case, you should use 对不起 for a genuine apology. As answer from other thread indicated:

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.

However, if the offend is minor and unintentional, for example: "you accidentally step on someone's foot", then saying 不好意思 (excuse me) is quite acceptable.

*请问 means "may I ask?" it isn't an apology. It is a polite way to "start asking a question"

*抱歉(sorry) is a more formal term for 对不起

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