It’s often said that we say sorry too much in English and that when it comes to being truly sorry, it can be difficult to convey sincerity. There are three main ways to apologize in Chinese and their use depends on the level of apology, as well as your relationship with the person.
Although 对不起 (duìbuqǐ) is the phrase we hear most often when learning Chinese to say sorry, this phrase conveys a sincere, deep apology and therefore is the least used in Chinese day-to-day language. It can be reserved for the most serious cases of apology. Or perhaps, in the case of the band Transition, to apologise for your level of Chinese…
How to Say Sorry in Chinese
Chinese Simplified: 对不起 (duìbuqǐ)
Chinese Traditional: 對不起
A formal apology in Chinese calls for 对不起, which can be reserved for the most sincere of cases where you need to own up to your mistake and ask for forgiveness. The literal translation of this phrase in English would be ‘unworthy’, which helps to express how much weight it carries.
Chinese Simplified: 抱歉 (bào qiàn)
Chinese Traditional: 抱歉
English: Sincere apologies
This would be used in a formal setting, for example if you arrive late for a business meeting. Likewise, if you can’t make a corporate event that there would be an expectation for you to attend, you can use 抱歉.
Chinese Simplified: 不好意思 (bù hǎo yì si)
Chinese Traditional: 不好意思
English: My Bad
For a minor misgiving, for example, if somebody is in your way on the street and you would like to pass them, or for accidentally cutting a queue.
In Chinese, the concept of Guanxi, is very important. With that in mind, people may offer much more sincere apologies to somebody close to them, or somebody they respect, rather than a total stranger. It’s all about protecting your relationships!