In my last post I discussed how to say “thank you” in Chinese. The word exists, but is used differently. The whole concept of how and why we thank others, and how we respond to the thanks of others, is different. Saying “please” is even more different.
In English, we throw the word “please” around quite liberally. It gets put in front of everything. Use that word, and you’re polite. Don’t use it, and you’re rude. It almost doesn’t MEAN anything – it’s just polite. Sort of. An English speaker with this attitude toward polite speech learns the word 请 [qǐng], which is often translated “please” and then starts throwing it around in their Chinese speech. Problem is, that’s not how the Chinese use 请.
请 is a verb. The English word “please” is also a verb, meaning to satisfy, or make someone happy. We don’t think about this much in everyday speech, but the background of the word affects how, when and why we use it. In contrast, the meaning of the verb 请 [qǐng] is a combination of ask/invite. You can 请 someone to dinner, meaning that you’re inviting them (and paying for them). In fact, the most common situation in which I hear the word 请 is when visiting a person’s home – and they invite you to come in, invite you sit, invite you to drink tea. It is host-to-guest language. 请进，请坐，请喝茶. This makes it completely out of place in most contexts where English speakers would say “please”.
While the English “please” can be used to be polite, separated from the original verb’s meaning, 请 is not a “politeness” word equivalent to “please”. Yes, in some contexts, 请 is used like “please” – for example, 请帮我一个忙 (please help me with something). In this context, however, 请 still relates to the core concept of “ask”; you’re basically saying “I [politely] ask for your help with something.” 请问 [qǐng wèn] – wen means “ask,” as in ask a question – is a commonly used phrase often translated “excuse me”; it is usually the precursor to a request for information.
So, we’ve established that 请 is not an all-situations words equivalent to “please” but is used in specific contexts. Now, imagine you want to ask someone to give you something. Most English-speakers would say “请给我” – a direct translation from the English “please give me”. Problem is, I very rarely here this phrase used by local Chinese – especially among peers and in every day settings (children speaking to adults are more likely to use 请). Not to worry, there are plenty of other ways to speak politely.
The simplest, and least formal, is 吧 [ba]. Just whack 吧 on the end of a statement to change it from a demand to a suggestion. So “we eat at McDonalds ba” means “let’s eat at McDonalds” or “why don’t we eat at McDonalds?” It’s a simple way to soften language.
Another common way to be polite is to use one of my favourite Chinese words – 麻烦 [má fan]. Many foreigners love this word as it sums up so much of life in China. It is translated “trouble” or “bother” but it means so much more. It’s an everyday word here. It describes the DRAMA of trying to get things done, especially where bureaucracy is concerned. It is also used as a verb, to be polite. In many cases this is the best replacement for “please”. Think of being with a friend, and asking them to pass you something. You’re more likely to say “could you pass me…” rather than “please give me the…” – the “please” version sounds a little too formal, not casual.
In the same way, you can say “麻烦 you to help me” or “麻烦 you to give me…” In this way it’s very similar to English; you can say “can I trouble you to…” in English, which is almost identical in meaning to this use of 麻烦. The difference is that in English we don’t use the words trouble/bother very often (it’s old fashioned now), whereas Mandarin uses 麻烦 all the time. The phrase 打扰 [dǎ rǎo] works in the same way, but is more formal; it’s normally used to ask someone to go out of their way, especially a stranger.
I have learned to appreciate the lack of an easy “please” in Mandarin. In English, please can become mindless. Too often I say it automatically, without thought. Mandarin requires of me a more conscious choice about how to be polite, which it turns makes me see people. That might not be how it works for everyone (especially for native speakers) but it’s good for me.