Learning to say sorry in Mandarin Chinese may be key to nurturing lasting friendships, sustaining harmony in relationships, and getting out of sticky situations.
Saying sorry in the Chinese culture, like most cultures, can convey regret, sadness, sympathy, or a willingness to change for the better.
Whether you’ve accidentally treaded someone’s toe, forgotten your best friend’s birthday, or arrived late at a meeting, apologies can go a long way. There are a variety of phrases you can use to apologize, and knowing how or when to use them will come in handy.
Of course, it’s always best to consider the person you’re speaking with and how serious the situation is.
Casual apologies are not suitable for heated conflicts and arguments with friends or family. In reverse, using intensely apologetic phrases when bumping into a stranger on the streets may come off strange to native ears. But take note that certain phrases may work well in either setting.
Let’s explore the various ways you can say sorry in Mandarin Chinese.
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Apologizing in Mandarin Chinese: Key phrases to be aware of
If you’ve dedicated some time to pick up Mandarin from various Chinese resources, you would probably have come across the most common way to say sorry, 对不起 (duìbùqǐ).
But to take things a step further, here’s a list of various phrases to add to your arsenal, so you’re prepared for any situation.
English meaning: “Sorry”
As mentioned earlier, 对不起 is one of the most well-known phrases used to convey an apology. While its meaning could be generalized as “sorry” in English, a more concise and direct translation would be “not worthy.”
While 对不起 is an introductory-level phrase universally understood by native speakers and beginner learners alike, do bear in mind that it can carry quite a hefty weight.
In some instances, 对不起 could come off relatively strong and should be reserved for situations where you genuinely feel embarrassed and remorseful. This phrase can be likened to “I owe you” and is used to admit your mistakes and ask for forgiveness.
Nonetheless, saying 对不起 can still be used in general situations, such as when you’re late for a date or meeting or if you’ve accidentally stepped on someone’s toe.
It can be used when speaking to friends, family, colleagues, clients, and bosses, but be careful to utilize it only when you’re apologizing for something that was your mistake. For instance, 对不起 is not suitable when you’re breaking bad news to a family member.
Additionally, try to reserve it for somewhat upsetting mistakes, rather than minor inconveniences, such as when you’re asking for directions from a stranger. If you’re causing a mild inconvenience to someone else, a more suitable phrase would be the following one.
不好意思 (bù hǎoyìsi)
English meaning: “Excuse me” or “Sorry about that”
The rather literal meaning of the phrase 不好意思 is “feeling embarrassed or shy.”
There are two main instances you can use this phrase to say sorry. Firstly, when you place it before a request, such as asking for directions to the bathroom or asking for the time, it could be likened to “Excuse me.” in English. This is a polite way of approaching a stranger on the streets and asking for a small favor or a little help.
In addition to that, you can also use 不好意思 to apologize for minor mistakes or inconveniences. For example, you can utilize it when rejecting a dinner invitation, arriving late for a meeting, or having a friend go out of their way to run an errand for you.
To sum it up, this phrase is suitable for both formal and informal situations where you may feel a little abashed or embarrassed but don’t personally feel extremely regretful or remorseful about it.
In a sense, you can also mention it when expressing gratefulness or thankfulness when someone takes the initiative to do something nice for you, such as buying you a gift or getting your groceries.
抱歉 (bào qiàn)
English meaning: “My sincerest apologies”
抱 (bào) means “to hug, hold, or embrace” while 歉 (qiàn) translates to “regret.”
Typically, 抱歉 is reserved for formal situations where you may be speaking to someone higher in authority or when you’re in a professional or business setting. Other than that, it also serves as a polite apology to a stranger or someone you’re barely acquainted with.
If you were to rank the three phrases we’ve just learned in terms of depth and severity, 对不起 could be reserved for situations that may call for a higher degree of apology. This is followed by 抱歉, while 不好意思 takes third place as the lightest and most casual form of apology.
Also, keep in mind that 抱歉 is typically used for formal circumstances, while 对不起 and 不好意思 can be used in both formal and informal occasions.
抱歉 can be utilized in two main ways. Firstly, you can mention this phrase when apologizing for an inconvenience or a last-minute shift of plans in a professional or formal setting.
For instance, say you have a scheduled meeting with your boss, but you’re unable to make it due to unforeseen circumstances. In this case, you can use 抱歉 as a form of apology. Plus, people also mention this phrase when apologizing to customers or clients for any inconvenience, such as a temporarily unavailable service.
Secondly, 抱歉 is also applicable in settings where you’re expressing your regret due to an undesirable situation that another person is in. For example, if your friend’s grandmother fell sick or your neighbor’s favorite pet has passed on, you can use 抱歉 to convey your sadness and regret.
是我的错 (shì wǒ de cuò)
English meaning: “It is my fault”
Sometimes, resolving a heated conflict or mending a relationship involves owning up to your mistakes and taking responsibility for it. Other times, you may wish to convey your apologies for a minor inconvenience that you caused, especially when it had posed trouble for the other person.
Several closely related phrases in the Mandarin language convey more or less the same meaning and show that you want to take ownership of what has happened.
Firstly, 是我的错 (shì wǒ de cuò) can be utilized when you wish to take the blame for something that has gone wrong. This phrase is suitable for situations between friends and family and is more often used as a more informal kind of apology.
A somewhat related phrase is 我错了 (wǒ cuò le), which means, “I was mistaken.” or “I was wrong.” You’ll more likely hear this bold phrase being used between spouses, friends, family, and couples, where one party wishes to take responsibility for a conflict or argument that has occurred.
For instance, if you’ve bickered with your mother, you may convey your apologies to her by using the phrase 我错了 to let her know you’re ready to take ownership for what has happened and resolve the conflict.
In addition to that, another similar-meaning phrase is 是我不对 (shì wǒ búduì) or 是我不好 (shì wǒ bù hǎo), which means “It’s my bad.” or “It was my mistake.” These can be applied to both casual or serious situations among friends and family.
Finally, if you’re searching for a phrase suitable for professional or workplace settings, you can use 责任全在我 (zérèn quán zài wǒ) or 是我的责任 (shì wǒ de zérèn).
Take note that these are usually reserved for formal instances for somewhat serious occurrences. You can use either of them if you’d like to take responsibility for something that has happened.
For instance, if a team project fails miserably, you can use 是我的责任 when speaking to your boss in the event you wish to bear responsibility for the results.
Undoubtedly, it is admirable to take ownership of our mistakes. Nonetheless, in some unfortunate cases, accidents still happen, and things spiral out of control despite our best efforts. In such situations, the following phrase may be suitable.
我不是故意的 (wǒ búshì gùyì de)
English meaning: “I didn’t do it on purpose” or “I didn’t mean to do that”
We may sometimes hurt someone’s feelings, but not on purpose. Despite our best intentions, conflicts can still be part and parcel of our relationships, and on certain occasions, you may want to explain your actions and doings to the other party.
In this case, 我不是故意的 lets the other person know that you did not mean to hurt them or make that mistake. It may sound like you’re shifting the blame or trying to get yourself out of trouble, so people may still question your sincerity.
Hence, this phrase is usually followed up by an explanation of what happened or a word of apology, for example, 对不起 (duìbùqǐ).
This phrase is usually reserved for use between friends and family, as it may come off a little unprofessional or overly casual in your workplace and other formal settings.
Another somewhat related phrase is 你别怪我啊 (nǐ bié guàiwǒ a), which means “Don’t blame me.” or “Please don’t put the blame on me.” Like the previous phrase, an explanation would usually follow suit. This is yet another phrase best suited for conversations between friends and family.
In some situations, you may wish to ask if the other party would forgive you, whether or not the occurrence was your responsibility or an accident. The following phrase serves this purpose well.
你能原谅我吗？(nǐ néng yuánliàng wǒ ma?)
English meaning: “Will you forgive me?”
原谅 (yuánliàng) means “forgive,” “excuse,” or “pardon,” when translated to English. Hence, this phrase is a question that relates to seeking forgiveness.
It can be used in conjunction with some others we have learned, such as 对不起 (duìbùqǐ), 是我的错 (shì wǒ de cuò), and 我不是故意的 (wǒ búshì gùyì de).
Essentially, this phrase is suitable for more serious situations, such as if you’ve significantly upset the other person or had a heated quarrel. It is not usually used for small inconveniences or minor mistakes like stepping on a person’s toe or arriving late for a meeting. Usually, you’ll hear this phrase mentioned between friends, family, and couples.
In addition to that, you may also say 我希望你能原谅我 (wǒ xīwàng nǐ néng yuánliàng wǒ), which means “I hope you can forgive me.” Similarly, this can be used with other apologetic phrases and in informal settings when speaking to people you’re well-acquainted with.
If you’re looking for a phrase better suited for professional, business, and workplace instances, then 请见谅 (qǐng jiànliàng) is the more befitting option. It could be likened to “Please excuse me.”
In this case, you’re asking for the other party’s understanding of something that has happened and caused them inconvenience. For example, you can use this when your company’s service is temporarily offline.
Different situations call for different phrases of apology.
Being able to come up with a fitting apology may help diffuse tension, open up room for effective two-way communication, and maintain the harmony of your relationships.
Other times, a simple sorry can convey respect or empathy.
In any case, it’s crucial you take into account the severity of the occurrence, the formality of the setting, and who you’re speaking to when deciding which phrase to use.
Saying sorry isn’t the easiest thing to do, but if you ever need to apologize in Mandarin Chinese, you’re now well-equipped to handle the situation.
Know of any other ways to say sorry in Mandarin Chinese?
I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!
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