Would you consider yourself a smooth-talking social butterfly?
Or more of a thoughtful introvert?
Even if you seem somewhat socially awkward—have no fear!
This handy list of useful Chinese phrases will help you start any conversation with friendliness and confidence.
In this post, we will explore 3 levels of how to start a conversation in Chinese:
Let’s get started!
The Survivor’s Backpocket List of Useful Chinese Phrases to Start Any Conversation
1. Did you eat yet? — 你吃了吗? (nǐ chī le ma?)
Chinese people love, love, love to ask people whether they have eaten or not. In this food-oriented culture, sharing food or asking others if they’ve eaten is a way of showing care and love.
Therefore, 你吃了吗? is the #1 go-to conversation starter, especially if you’re speaking with someone you care for, such as family, roommates, classmates, coworkers, friends, etc.
Because it’s such a common phrase, 你吃了吗? is almost the equivalent of “How are you?” in English.
In fact, it’s more common for a Chinese person to ask “Have you eaten?” as a way of checking on someone than it is for them to ask “How are you?”
As it is with the English greeting “How are you?” the standard answer to “你吃了吗?” is “吃了!” (chī le) — “Yes, I’ve eaten.”
It’s just like the reflex answer “Good, thanks!” when anyone asks how you are.
2. What’s up? — 怎么样? (zěn me yàng)
“What’s up?” is a favorite conversation starter among the young and hip in Western cultures.
The Chinese have an equivalent—”怎么样?”
Literally, it means “How is it?” or “What’s the status?”
This phrase is best used in casual contexts and with people who are at a similar level as you, for example friends and colleagues.
Since seniority, or showing respect to elders, is important in Chinese culture, “What’s up?” would not be a good way to greet your boss or your mother-in-law.
Among roommates or at your study group, 怎么样? and the alternative 干嘛? (gān ma)—“Doing what?”—are cheeky ways to jump start your conversation!
3. How are you lately? — 你最近好吗? (nǐ zuì jìn hǎo ma?)
If you want to be more kind and gentle, rather than shouting “what’s up?” you can ask, “你最近好吗?” (literally: “Are you good lately?”)
最近 (zuì jìn) means lately or recently.
This very useful conversation starter can be used with people older than you or younger than you, with your supervisor or your students.
Super handy. It shows that you care without being too casual or overly formal.
4. Where’d you go to have fun lately? — 你最近去哪里玩? (nǐ zuì jìn qù nǎ lǐ wán?)
Did you notice your friend beaming and sporting some new clothes?
Maybe she went on a shopping holiday to Shenzhen! You can ask her, “你最近去哪里玩?”
This is a great phrase for catching up with someone you haven’t seen for a while, and to get some recommendations of fun places to go see yourself.
Perhaps your friend will tell you:
“我去了夏威夷” (wǒ qù le xià wēi yí) — “I went to Hawaii!”
“我到上海去了” (wǒ dào shàng hǎi qù le) — “I went to Shanghai.”
我没有去那里 (wǒ méi yǒu qù nà lǐ) — “I didn’t go anywhere.”
Try this question to see what cool places your friends have visited!
5. What have you been busy with? — 你最近忙什么? (nǐ zuì jìn máng shén me?)
For your busy friends and acquaintances, you have to ask this one. It’s an easy way to catch up on one another’s work and projects, or hear about how they spent their past week.
忙 (máng) means busy. You could say:
“我很忙!” (wǒ hěn máng) — “I’m so busy!”
If you ask your friends “你最近忙什么?” (nǐ zuì jìn máng shén me?), they might respond:
“我最近在忙工作” (wǒ zuì jìn zài máng gōng zuò) — “I’ve been busy with work.”
“我最近在忙家里事” (wǒ zuì jìn zài máng jiā lǐ shì) — “I’ve been busy with family issues.”
Try this question to see what your friends have been up to!
6. That piece of clothing looks great! Where’d you get it? — 这件衣服很好看! 你在哪里买的？(zhè jiàn yī fú hěn hǎo kàn! nǐ zài nǎ lǐ mǎi de?)
Complimenting someone is a generous gesture, and in our consumerist society, asking where to buy something is a friendly way to start any dialogue.
To compliment the way something looks, you can use 很好看 (hěn hǎo kàn). For example:
你的鞋子很好看 (nǐ de xié zi hěn hǎo kàn) — “Your shoes look great.”
你今天的发型很好看 (nǐ jīn tiān de fà xíng hěn hǎo kàn) — “Your hair looks great today.”
很不错 (hěn bù cuò) — “It’s really not bad.”
The last option (很不错) sounds a bit ambivalent but is actually a general way of saying that something’s great.
7. How’s your mom doing? — 你妈最近好吗？(nǐ mā zuì jìn hǎo ma?)
Chinese culture is strongly familial and strongly relational.
If you’re good friends with someone and you’ve met their family, it’s friendly and appropriate to ask about them. You can say:
“你_(family member)_好吗？” — “How’s_(family member)_doing?”
“你的孩子们好吗？” (nǐ de hái zi men hǎo ma?) — “How are your kids?”
“你的家里人好吗？” (nǐ de jiā lǐ rén hǎo ma?) — “How’s your family?”
8. Do you like___? Why? — 你喜不喜欢___? 为什么? (nǐ xǐ bù xǐ huān___? wèi shén me?)
Asking about likes and dislikes is an easy way to engage someone in conversation.
In Chinese, you simply say, 你喜不喜欢_(subject)_? For example:
你喜不喜欢看西片 (nǐ xǐ bù xǐ huān kàn xī piān?) — “Do you like watching Western (English) films?”
你喜不喜欢养小宠物 (nǐ xǐ bù xǐ huān yǎng xiǎo chǒngwù?) — “Do you like keeping small pets?”
If the answer is yes—我喜欢 (wǒ xǐ huān)—then you can respond with “me too!” or “我也是!” (wǒ yě shì). Instant relational connection.
If the answer is no—我不喜欢 (wǒ bù xǐ huān)—follow up with the simple question, “Why?”—”为什么?” (wèi shén me?)
Now, I’m going to give you two challenging ways to start any Chinese conversation. If you’re ready for a longer, more in-depth discussion on topics such as current events, you can engage someone’s thoughts or opinions.
9. What’s your opinion on this? — 你对这个有什么看法？(nǐ duì zhè gè yǒu shén mē kàn fǎ?)
Asking for someone’s 看法 (kàn fǎ) is asking for their views on something. Try 你有什么看法？(nǐ yǒu shén mē kàn fǎ?) with any current events or issues that spark discussion! For example:
“你对香港的雨傘革命有什么看法？” (nǐ duì xiāng gǎng de yǔ sǎn gé mìng yǒu shén mē kàn fǎ?) — “What’s your take on Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution?“
That question may stir up some heated debate.
To respond to someone asking for your opinion, you can start with:
“我觉得” (wǒ jué de) — “I think that…”
Or, to be a diplomatic fence-sitter and hold no strong opinions, you could say:
“我没什么看法” (wǒ méi shén me kàn fǎ) — “I don’t have any opinion.”
10. If this happened, what would you do? — 如果这样你会怎么办? (rú guǒ zhè yàng nǐ huì zé me bàn?)
Dare you go delve into the hypothetical? Then you should know that 如果 (rú guǒ) means “if.” And you should also know that “你会怎么办?” (nǐ huì zé me bàn?) means “What would you do?”
Ask something provocative, such as:
“如果你被抛弃了你会怎么办？” (rú guǒ nǐ bèi pāo qì le nǐ huì zěn me bàn?) — “What would you do if you got dumped (by your boyfriend/girlfriend)?”
Here’s a funny Chinese survey on that very question.
Or, try this thought-provoking question:
“如果你只剩一个月的生命，你会怎么办？” (rú guŏ nĭ zhī shèng yī gè yuè de shēng mìng, nǐ huì zěn me bàn?) — “What would you do if you only had one month to live?”
Here, Chinese citizens share their thoughts on what they would do in their final days of life.
Now you have an excellent repertoire of Chinese conversation starters!
With a little practice, you’ll be well on your way to starting a conversation in Chinese with anyone, anytime!
To learn more useful Chinese phrases, try watching these fun online videos where all the Chinese is dissected into phonetic pinyin, English translation, definitions and other useful bits to help you master the language.
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