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How to say “Excuse Me” in Chinese

excuse me in chinese

You’re wandering a crowded Beijing market, and the smell of sizzling street food fills the air. A glorious steamed bun practically hypnotizes you into buying it. Life is good. Then, disaster strikes. You realize you’re hopelessly lost, and that steamed bun won’t help you find your hotel.

You scan the crowd desperately. A friendly-looking older lady? Nope. Someone who looks like they speak English? Not a chance. Your Mandarin vocabulary suddenly shrinks to the size of a sesame seed. The only word you confidently remember is “Ni Hao” (hello). 

Do you:

A) Mime your way through a confusing game of charades, pointing at your map and making pleading faces?

B) Elbow your way past shouting “Excuse me” in English, hoping for the best (and secretly fearing you’ll offend everyone)?

C) Give up and cry into your delicious steamed bun?

We’ve all had that panicked “I have NO idea what to say ” moment in China. It turns out that a simple “excuse me” can be the difference between awkward charades and actually getting the help you need. But here’s the kicker – it’s not just ONE magic phrase to learn. It’s a whole toolkit of ways to navigate those bustling markets, crowded subways, and situations where your Mandarin fails you.

Ready to upgrade your “excuse me” game? Let’s dive in!

Your “excuse me” starter pack

Okay, you’re itching to get into the nitty-gritty of when to apologize versus when to politely body-check someone outta your way. But first, let’s get those basic “excuse me” phrases locked in! Think of these as your Mandarin communication Swiss Army knife – they’re essential, even if you need more tools later.

1. 不好意思 (bù hǎo yì si) — The all-purpose oops

This phrase might be your new best friend. It’s your go-to for those everyday slip-ups and minor apologies. Literally translated, it makes zero sense in English (“not good meaning”), but trust us, it works wonders.

Use it when:

  • You accidentally bump into someone
  • You need to interrupt a conversation politely
  • You create an embarrassing situation (think: loud sneeze in public).

2. 借过 (jiè guò) — Borrowing your way through

Imagine you’re stuck in a crowded subway. This magic phrase is your secret weapon to politely navigate those packed spaces. Literally translated, it means “borrow pass,” like you’re temporarily borrowing a bit of someone’s personal space.

Use it when:

  • You need to squeeze through a crowded space (subway, market)
  • You need to get past someone who’s blocking your way.

3. 请问 (qǐng wèn) — The polite attention grabber

Lost and need directions? Starving and want to order food? This phrase is your key to getting someone’s attention politely. It literally translates to “please ask,” making it a super respectful way to initiate communication.

Use it when:

  • You need to ask someone a question
  • You need help with something (directions, ordering food.)

And that’s just the start. Think of these as your Mandarin “excuse me” starter pack. Now get ready because we’re about to level up from basic politeness to serious communication skills.

Related Reading: Chinese for Foodies: A Culinary Language Journey

Excuse me? It depends… (your situation-based phrasebook)

your situation-based phrasebook

Okay, you’re probably thinking, “But I just learned those phrases! Why do I need more?” Here’s the thing about “excuse me” in Chinese – it’s not about the words themselves; it’s about fitting into the flow of the situation. Think of it less like a textbook and more like a secret communication power you level up over time.

Let’s break down some classic “excuse me” scenarios and show you the moves:

Scenario 1: Getting the waiter’s attention

You’re at a restaurant, starving, but your waiter seems to have vanished into thin air. Waving frantically and yelling “Excuse me!” in English is probably not your best bet. Here’s the play-by-play:

Don’t: Click your fingers or start whistling. Seriously, just don’t.

Okay: A simple 请问 (qǐng wèn – excuse me) is your basic attention-getter.

Better: Adding a subtle hand raise makes you even more noticeable.

Pro-Level: If they’re REALLY ignoring you, try “服务员!” (fú wù yuán – waiter/waitress). Use this one strategically – it’s a bit more direct.

Scenario 2: The polite shove (aka navigating crowds)

Picture a packed night market, the delicious smell of street food, and zero personal space. Time to channel your inner fluency!

Don’t: Just start pushing through yelling, “Excuse me!” in English. Prepare for some seriously grumpy looks.

Basic: 借过 (jiè guò – excuse me) is your go-to as you weave through the crowd.

Advanced: When it’s REALLY packed, a series of short “借过, 借过” (jiè guò, jiè guò- ”Excuse me, excuse me”) can work wonders as you inch your way forward.

Scenario 3: The “oops, my bad” Apology

We all mess up sometimes. When those awkward moments strike, the right apology goes a long way.

Don’t: Freeze up and pretend nothing happened. That’s the WORST.

Universal: 不好意思 (bù hǎo yì si – sorry/excuse me) is your best friend. Use it for everything from bumping into someone to spilling your tea.

Extra Regret: If you REALLY messed up, consider adding “对不起” (duì bu qǐ). It packs a more serious “I’m very sorry” punch.

Consider this your “excuse me” boot camp. Get out there and start using these phrases – even if the pronunciation is a bit wobbly at first. Trust us, a slightly imperfect “不好意思” is better than awkward silence. And hey, if you accidentally ask the taxi driver to marry you instead of telling them the address… Well, we’ve all been there, right? At least you tried…

Related Reading: Seriously Impressive Ways to Start a Conversation in Mandarin

Mandarin politeness hacks: Leveling up your “excuse me”

Okay, now you’ve got the basic “excuse me” in Chinese down. But here’s where things get interesting. Politeness in Chinese is a whole intricate dance, and knowing the right steps for each situation is key for smooth communication.

The “excuse me” politeness spectrum

Alright, let’s get down to the brass tacks. Ever wondered how to say “excuse me” in Chinese without accidentally challenging someone to a duel? 

Well, we’ve got a handy-dandy guide to help you nail the politeness level every time. Whether you’re squeezing past someone at a concert or asking a stranger for directions, there’s a perfect “excuse me” for every situation.

Politeness LevelSimplified CharactersPinyinUS English TranslationExample Scenario
Super Casual (Close Friends, Family)AiHey“Excuse me, can I borrow your phone?” (to a close friend)
Casual借过Jiè guòExcuse me (to pass through)“Excuse me” (squeezing past someone in a crowd)
Standard不好意思Bù hǎo yì siExcuse me / I’m sorry“Excuse me” (bumping into someone)
Polite请问Qǐng wènExcuse me / May I ask…?“Excuse me, can I help you?” (to a customer)
Formal打扰一下Dǎ rǎo yī xiàExcuse me for interrupting“Excuse me for interrupting, but do you speak English?”
Super Formal (Strangers, Elderly, Authority)劳驾Láo jiàExcuse me, could I trouble you…?“Excuse me, could I trouble you for the time?” (to a stranger on the street)

So, next time you’re navigating the wild, wonderful world of Chinese etiquette, keep this spectrum in mind. From “Hey” to “Excuse me, could I trouble you…?”, remember, when in doubt, aim for the middle. It’s better to be a tad too polite than to end up in an “oops, did I just say that?” situation. 

And hey, if all else fails, a smile and a sincere attempt at Mandarin will get you far.

Related Reading: Saying “I Would Like” in Chinese

”Excuse me” is your beginner’s secret weapon

”Excuse me” is your beginner's secret weapon

You’re on a first-time visit to China, and you need something, whether it’s finding the bathroom or checking the price of those awesome souvenirs. But your Mandarin vocabulary is still…limited. Don’t panic! Turns out, “excuse me” is your secret weapon for getting help and smoothing over those beginner hiccups.

Let’s focus on the absolute must-know phrases you can use RIGHT NOW:

  • 不好意思 (bù hǎo yì si): Your all-around “oops,” “sorry,” and “excuse me.” Use it liberally.
  • 请问 (qǐng wèn): This unlocks attention politely. Perfect for when you need to ask something.

Ready for real-world practice?

Let’s break down some classic situations where your new superpowers shine:

Scenario: Lost in the market

  • Need a bathroom? “请问,洗手间在哪儿?” (qǐng wèn, xǐ shǒu jiān zài nǎr) gets you pointed in the right direction.
  • Don’t understand the reply? 不好意思,我不懂 (bù hǎo yì si, wǒ bù dǒng) – “Excuse me, I don’t understand.”

Scenario: Souvenir shopping

  • Eyeing something cool? Point, say “请问” (qǐng wèn), then hold up your fingers to guess a price. The seller will likely correct you, but you started the interaction!
  • Asking for the price? Point at the souvenir and say, “请问,这个多少钱?” (Qǐngwèn, zhège duōshao qián?) — Excuse me, how much is this?
  • Trying to find something specific? Show a picture of what you’re looking for (if you have one) and say “请问,有这个吗?” (Qǐngwèn, yǒu zhège ma?) — Excuse me, do you have this?
  • Needing to ask for something to be shown? Point to an item on a high shelf and say, “不好意思,能帮我拿一下吗?” (Bù hǎo yì si, néng bāng wǒ ná yīxià ma?) — Excuse me, could you please help me get that down?
  • Not sure you want to buy? “我可以看看吗?” (Wǒ kěyǐ kànkan ma?) — May I take a look?

Extra tips

  • Don’t be afraid to use gestures: Even if your pronunciation isn’t perfect, pointing and miming with some well-known Chinese hand gestures can help fill in the gaps.
  • Learn some basic numbers: So you can understand the price a seller tells you. Take the time to learn some essential Chinese numbers, and how to count in Chinese.
  • A smile goes a long way: Show that you’re trying, and the seller will often be more patient!

Related Reading: The Open Secret of Immersion Learning for Languages

Why bother with “excuse me” in Chinese?

Think of these phrases as your communication life raft. They might feel small, but they make a HUGE difference:

  • Show respect: Even imperfect attempts show you’re trying, which goes a long way.
  • Get unstuck: “Excuse me” breaks the ice and gets help flowing your way.
  • Mistakes happen: Bumped into someone? A simple “不好意思” smooths things over.

Key Takeaway: The more you use your “excuse me” toolkit, the faster you’ll improve. It’s how you get better at Mandarin, one polite phrase at a time.

Related Reading: The 7 Biggest Mistakes Chinese Learners Make

Stop saying “excuse me” wrong

Think you’ve got the basics of “excuse me in Chinese” down pat? Maybe, maybe not. It turns out there are WAY more levels to this than just getting someone’s attention politely. From accidentally insulting your taxi driver to not knowing how to ask for directions in a formal way, those “excuse me” missteps can seriously stall your Mandarin progress.

That’s where the Mandarin Fluency Scorecard comes in. This quick assessment isn’t just about how many characters you know or whether you can order a kung pao chicken perfectly. It digs into the nuances of communication, pinpointing exactly how you’re saying “excuse me” and identifying where those hidden gaps might be.

Take the Scorecard, and within 60 seconds, you’ll get a personalized report uncovering your strengths and weaknesses and the next steps tailored to your current Mandarin level.

Imagine ditching those awkward “oops” moments and replacing them with the confidence of knowing the right “excuse me” for any situation. That’s the power of understanding the levels of politeness, the cultural nuances, and getting those tricky tones right.

Want to start speaking Mandarin more smoothly and confidently and avoid those cringeworthy misunderstandings? It’s time to discover your true Mandarin level.

Take the FREE Mandarin Fluency Scorecard now and unlock your personalized roadmap to fluency! 
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