woman refusing proposal

Declining an Invitation: How to Say “Not This Time” In Chinese?

If you’ve spent any time in China, you’ve no doubt noticed that Chinese people don’t like to say no, at least not directly. So when someone invites you out, simply telling them “no” may cause them to lose face—a big no-no for Chinese people.

Instead of giving a definite negative answer, it’s better to soften your reply by saying something like “sorry, not this time”, “maybe next time,” or “how about another time?” This way, you can avoid embarrassment, and at the same time, allow the other person to save face.

So, how do you say “not this time” in Chinese? Let’s look at some of the best ways to decline an invitation in Mandarin without upsetting anyone!

下次吧 – Xiàcì ba

下次 xiàcì means “next time.” In Mandarin Chinese, 上 shàng and 下 xià are used to express not only “up” and “down,” but also “last” and “next,” respectively. Adding the ba particle at the end softens the reply, making this more a suggestion than a direct answer. So, 下次吧 translates into English as something like: “How about next time?”

This phrase is highly context-dependent. Sometimes, “下次吧” is a way of saying “no,” while allowing the other person to save face. The translation may be more literal on another occasion: “How about next time?” Thus, in Mandarin, it is somewhere between an embarrassing “no” and a tentative “yes.”

Let’s look at an example sentence or two to see how this works:

小林,今天下班后要不要和我们一起去吃饭?

Xiǎolín, jīntiān xiàbānhòu yàobùyào hé wǒmen yīqǐ qù chīfàn?

Xiao Lin, would you like to have dinner with us after work today?

下次吧,今天我还有一些事情要忙。

Xiàcì ba, jīntiān wǒ háiyǒu yīxiē shìqíng yào máng.

How about next time? I still have some things to do today.

In this example, the reply is relatively neutral. Whether the speaker wants to go another time or refuses the invitation altogether will depend on their tone of voice. Now, let’s look at another example:

小张,你家在解放街,对吗?

Xiǎo Zhāng, nǐ jiā zài jiěfàngjiē,duì ma?

Xiao Zhang, your house is on Jiefang Street, isn’t it?

啊,是的,有什么事吗?

A, shìde, yǒu shénme shì ma?

Ah, yes. What’s up?

我今天正好要去那边办事,正好可以去你家拜访你。

Wǒ jīntiān zhènghǎo yàoqù nàbiān bànshì, zhènghǎo kěyǐ qù nǐ jiā bàifǎng nǐ.

I happen to be going there today. So I can visit you at home.

啊,今天我不太方便,下次吧。

A, jīntiān wǒ bù tài fāngbiàn, xiàcìba.

Ah, it’s not so convenient today—next time.

The speaker offers no excuse in the above sentences except to say, “It’s not convenient.” She shows apparent hesitancy and politely refuses. 下次吧 sounds much blunter when used by itself and is more likely to mean simply “no.”

When Chinese people use 下次吧 xiàcìba, it might mean they would like to accept your invitation but cannot make it today, or it might mean that they have no interest whatsoever. In other words, it will take some time to get familiar with how these phrases are used in Mandarin Chinese. For now, let’s say if you finally muster up the courage to ask the girl or guy of your dreams out on a date, and they reply “下次吧,” it’s probably not a good sign.

young chinese couple talking

再想想 – Zài xiǎngxiǎng

In Mandarin Chinese, the word 再 zài means “again,” “once more,” or simply “more.” The word 想 xiǎng means “to think,” “to wish for,” or “to miss” (to remember somebody or someplace with longing). Repeating this character, we get 想想 xiǎngxiǎng, which means “to think about” or “to consider.” When taken together, 再想想 zàixiǎngxiǎng means “I’ll think about it.”

再想想 is a helpful expression to use when you are out shopping. In China, shop clerks rarely leave customers alone to browse the wares by themselves. On those occasions when you find the attention annoying, use 再想想 zàixiǎngxiǎng to escape when the salesperson marks you out as a possible target. At the same time, the phrase can also prove a good bargaining tool, as in the examples and translations below:

要不要试试这件裙子? 很适合你的气质。

Yàobùyào shìshì zhèjiàn qúnzi? Hěn shìhé nǐde qìzhì.

Do you want to try on this dress? It really suits you.

我觉得这个颜色太显眼了,我再想想。

Wǒ juédé zhège yánsè tài xiǎnyǎnle, wǒ zàixiǎngxiǎng.

I think this color is too showy. Let me sleep on it.

Here, 再想想 is used to decline the offer or invite a cheaper quote. If you walk away saying “再想想,” it’s understood that you are not asking for more time to think, and the shopkeeper is unlikely to expect you to return. They may make you a final offer, lowering their price in the hope of enticing you back.

It’s best not to use 再想想 zàixiǎngxiǎng by itself to say “not this time” in Chinese. For example, if someone invites you over to their house or out for a date, telling them you need to think about it is likely to be taken as a sign of refusal, even quite a direct one.

customer saying not this time in chinese

再说吧 – Zàishuō ba

Look up the 再说 zàishuō in a Mandarin Chinese dictionary, and you will find three main definitions. The first is the literal definition, “to say again,” where 再 zài functions just as it does in the standard way of saying goodbye in Chinese, 再见 zàijiàn, meaning “see again” or “meet again,” similar to the English expression “See you later.”

再说 zàishuō can also mean “moreover,” “what’s more,” or “besides,” as in the sentence: 现在去找他太晚了,再说我路也不熟 Xiànzài qù zhǎo tā tài wǎn le, zàishuō wǒ lù yě bùshú (“It’s too late to go and see him now. Besides, I don’t know the way.”)

The third definition, and the most important for us here, is more idiomatic. Here, 再说 zàishuō means “to put off until sometime later,” often indefinitely. A couple of examples should help to make this clear:

今天你在家吗? 我想来看看你。

Jīntiān nǐ zàijiā ma? Wǒ xiǎng lái kànkàn nǐ.

Are you at home today? I’d like to come to see you.

不知道几点会议结束,再说吧。

Bùzhīdào jǐdiǎn huìyì jiéshù, zàishuōba.

I don’t know what time the meeting will finish. So let’s talk about it later.

Unlike some phrases and expressions used to say “not this time” in Chinese, this one is close to a direct “no.” In the examples and translations above, the speaker probably does not intend to “talk about it later.”

If you want to use 再说吧 zàishuōba to mean, “let’s talk about it later,” it’s best to propose a date or time, as in the conversation below:

今晚要不要一起去看电影?

Jīnwǎn yàobùyào yīqǐ qù kàn diànyǐng?

Do you want to go to see a movie together this evening?

我还有很多工作没完成,明天再说吧。

Wǒ háiyǒu hěnduō gōngzuò méiwánchéng, míngtiān zàishuōba。

I still have a lot of work left to do, let’s talk about it tomorrow.

unhappy chinese couple

改天吧 – Gǎitiān ba

改天吧 gǎitiān ba is made up of the verb 改 gǎi (to change) and the noun 天 tiān (day), so the literal meaning is “Change the day.” A more natural translation into English would be “Another day” or “Some other day.” The 吧 ba particle at the end makes it closer to a question or suggestion: “How about another day?

Without a word of explanation to soften the tone, 改天吧 gǎitiān ba can also simply mean “no,” similar to 再说吧 zàishuōba. Take a look at the following conversation. Here the words are as close to a direct refusal as a Chinese person is likely to give:

陈老板,方便今晚一起吃顿饭吗?

Chén lǎobǎn, nín shénme shíhòu yǒukòng wǒ kěyǐ qǐng nín chīfàn?

Mr. Chen (lit. “Boss Chen”), can I invite you for dinner when you have free time?

最近我都很忙,改天吧。

Zuìjìn wǒ dōu hěn máng, gǎitiān ba.

Lately, I’m always busy—some other day.

On other occasions, it has no such connotation—the speaker wants to take a rain check and would like to go some other time–as in the following conversation:

亲爱的,上次你说你想去山上的那家咖啡厅喝咖啡,正好我今天休息,要不要我们开车去?

Qīn’ài de, shàngcì nǐ shuō nǐ xiǎng qù shānshàng de nà jiā kāfēitīng hē kāfēi, zhènghǎo wǒ jīntiān xiūxi, yào bùyào wǒmen kāichē qù?

Darling, last time you said you wanted to go to that cafe on the mountain for coffee? It turns out I’m off work today. How about we take a drive up there?

天气预报说今天会有一场暴风雨,我担心开车很不安全。改天吧。

Tiānqì yùbào shuō jīntiān huì yǒu yī chǎng bàofēngyǔ, wǒ dānxīn kāichē hěn bù ānquán. Gǎitiān ba.

The weather report said there’ll be a storm today. I’m worried it’s not safe to drive. Let’s do it another time.

While there’s no simple rule to follow when using these phrases or expressions, generally, the shorter the response, the more you should worry. Even if someone provides an excuse, it’s most likely meant as a refusal if they neglect to offer an alternative date or time.

woman saying not this time in chinese

这次不行 – Zhè cì bùxíng

Search for “not this time” in a Mandarin Chinese dictionary, and you may come across the expression 这次不行 zhè cì bùxíng. Though this is the most direct translation of the English words, “not this time,” it can sound very blunt to Chinese people, almost rude. It’s best to use it in combination with one of the other phrases to say “not this time” in Chinese, along with a word of apology or a reason for declining the invitation. For example, you might say: 不好意思,这次不行,下次可以吗?Bùhǎoyìsi, zhè cì bùxíng, xià cì kěyǐ ma? (“Sorry, not this time. Can we do it next time?”)

Adding 了le or 啦 la softens the tone somewhat, making the words less direct, as in the following example:

这次不行啦,下次可以吗?

Zhè cì bùxíng la, xià cì kěyǐ ma?

Not this time, do you mind if we go next time?

If you want to learn Chinese, you should accept every opportunity you have to make friends, socialize, and get talking in Mandarin out there in the world. One of the best ways to improve your Mandarin Chinese is by hanging out and speaking with Chinese people.

But sometimes daily life gets in the way: you have to go to class; you have that website to work on; your long-lost sister just called up from Zanzibar. Maybe you’re not in the mood to leave the house, or perhaps it’s just too damn early. On those occasions when you want to stay home—and it’s bound to happen sometimes—knowing how to say “not this time” in Chinese is an essential skill.