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If someone steps on your foot and says “sorry” flatly, you might be annoyed. If you and a friend are going to the movies and he arrives a bit late then says “I'm so sorry,” you might be a little surprised and tell him there's no need to apologize. Do Chinese people do the same?
There are at least three ways to apologize in Chinese and they are each used in certain contexts. The phrase "Duibuqi" which translates to sorry in English is the least used phrase. Is this perhaps why Chinese are thought to never apologize?
Here is the hierarchy for apologies: "Duibuqi" is the deepest apology, followed by "Baoqian", and the mildest is "Buhao yisi". The degree of sorry also relates to how frequent the phrase is used. People rarely make serious mistakes so it's rare to hear "Duibuqi". It's also considered to be very formal. When you do something wrong that has a big impact on others, you must sincerely say "Duibuqi".
For common apologies, people say "Baoqian". For example, if you get stuck on the way to work and you're a few minutes late, you should say "Baoqian". If your colleagues invite you out to lunch but you don't have time, you should say "Baoqian".
You can use "Buhao yisi" for a mild apology or if you are bothering someone for help. When you ask for directions, you should start with "Buhao yisi". Walking down a crowded street, you can say "Buhao yisi, please let me pass." At a store, if an item is not in stock, the salesman may say to you "Buhao yisi, our stock has run out."
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