Though there is a massive campaign under way in China to teach the population English in preparation for the Olympics, anyone who travels to China still needs to master at least a few basic phrases. There are several ways to say “hello” in China, each with a slightly different shade of meaning and appropriate situation for use. The most simple “hello” is ni hao ma? which has been condensed to ni hao? (Say it as if you were saying the English words “knee how.” Its literal meaning is “you good?”) The most typical way to reply is hao, ni ne? (This is pronounced “how, knee na?” and means “fine, and you?”)

Among strangers, acquaintances, and at formal occasions you can formalize ni hao? to nin hao? (Say “neen how?”) This is similar to going from tu to vous in French, and like that formal pronoun, nin is used both for one person or for a group.

You may find, however, that when you telephone someone, the party on the other end answers with an abrupt and often repeated wei? (pronounced like the English word “way” and meaning “hi”). This is a telephone greeting only; the proper reply is ni hao.

A more casual greeting you hear all the time in China is ni chi le ma? (Say “knee chur la ma?” making the “r” soft. The literal meaning is “have you eaten?”) This greeting is used whenever and wherever among friends and is not connected to whether or not you have actually eaten. If you answer chi le (“have eaten,” pronounced “chur la,”), which is the most common way to answer, you are not hungry, so life is pretty good.

When meeting someone for the first time, Americans consider direct eye contact and strong handshakes respectful, but the Chinese feel differently. Upon meeting someone, it is very common for Chinese people to lower their eyes. Don’t misconstrue this as indicating shame or lack of interest— it is a sign of respect. If you look intently into the eyes of a Chinese colleague, it may make them uneasy, and someone older or more senior may find your behavior disrespectful. As for handshaking, which has become widespread as part of the ritual of introductions in China, be aware that the Chinese usually shake hands very lightly for an extended time instead of vigorously for a short time.

Source: A Thousand Words: First Impressions. (2006). Guanxi: The China Letter, 3, 10.