February 23rd, 2012 | Published in China - Language
As my spoken Chinese level continues to improve, I’m finding myself engaging in extended conversation with strangers more and more often. Speaking with strangers is something I’ve been doing since my first days in China more than two years ago, of course, but in the past it’s always been a rather stilted, awkward affair. Especially in my first year, it was all I could do to blurt out answers to basic questions, focusing carefully on my tones and grammar and word choice, just praying that I wouldn’t say something horribly unintelligible, awkward, or worse–offensive or embarrassing.
For example, when having dinner with my students in my second semester, I intended to say, “I want to ask you a question” (wǒ xiǎng wèn nǐ yī xià/我想问你一下) but because of a tonal mistake ended up saying, “I want to kiss you” (wǒ xiǎng wěn nǐ yī xià/我想吻你一下）. The operative verb there being wèn/wěn–the classic beginner’s mistake.
In my second year, conversations with strangers picked up a lot, and I started making friends. One of my best friends in China I met on the bus on the way home from work. She sat down next to me and we ended up chatting happily for fifteen minutes, and I was on my toes enough to ask for her number before she got off the bus. That random encounter blossomed into a great friendship, which ended up turning into a lot of friendships with her friends and her boyfriend’s friends. But it was something of a rarity. Usually when strangers spoke to me, or I spoke to them, I tried my best to answer their questions in a friendly way and to show my own curiosity, but oftentimes encounters ended with a fizzle as I lacked the confidence to really engage them enthusiastically, and generally strangers seemed oddly dissatisfied with my answers, although they always complimented me on my Chinese.
Recently I believe I may have discovered one of the reasons: The nǐ versus nín form of address. The first one (你）is the informal word for “you” in Chinese. The second (您）is the polite form–the eqivalent of tu and vous in French, or tú and usted in Spanish. The informal is used for friends or people your own age in Chinese, or for people you’ve met at least once before. The formal, of course, is for older people or people in some position of authority, or for people you’ve just met.
Of course, being a native English speaker, my brain doesn’t work that way. Especially coming from the northeast United States, where the norm is to be chummy and relatively informal with strangers, previously it always felt unnatural and forced, even with my superiors at work, to use the polite form. It always felt like I was sucking up or being a brown-noser. Also, I had gotten used to saying nǐ and it was a struggle for me to twist out the slightly different pronunciation every time I asked a question or used the word for “you,” which was a lot.
Of course, as with anything new, especially in language study, the new thing is hard to do the first few times but then it quickly gets a lot easier. I found as I started introducing nín into my speaking that people seemed to react much more positively to me, and to show more patience and acceptance right away. These things are of course really hard to gauge–you never know why someone reacts the way they do–but since I started using nín I feel that I’ve had much more success in having longer and richer conversations with people I’m meeting for the first time–my own age, older, men, women, everybody.
And it makes sense. If you’re addressing someone in the familiar form and you’re not familiar, they’re gonna think it’s weird. And now that I’ve adapted in this way I notice the rather sudden, unexpressed change in relationship that occurs when the other person starts using nǐ (which usually happens about five to ten minutes into a conversation). This is incredibly important, because when you’re studying a language, pretty much all you want to do is engage other people in that language and it always feels amazing to have involved conversations in that language. Just like having a fantastic conversation in English feels great, but possibly better. Just today I was eating lunch in the dining hall alone, as usual, but I changed one thing: I kept my phone in my pocket and stopped myself from reading the news while I ate. I just sat there and waited for someone to sit down across from me. And when somebody sat down, I waited two minutes, and then started what turned out to be a great conversation: “Nín shì zhèbiān de lǎoshī ma?” Are you a teacher here?
I’ve tried that question many times before, but in the past I usually made the mistake of using nǐ. Now I see that all along I was (maybe) getting things off on the wrong foot, subtly annoying or offending the person across from me rather than flattering them. And of course the rule of conversation with new people is: flatter.
Even with Chinese, who always claim to be modest and not to care about politeness, it turns out it still matters.