How to START a Conversation in Chinese

In Common Chinese Questions, Practical Chinese Phrases by Angel Huang2 Comments

Keeping a conversation going in a foreign language can be a challenge.

Of course, we know it gets easier with practice... but here’s the thing:

Very often we miss out on valuable speaking practice simply because we don’t make use of opportunities to start conversations with people in the first place.

And I get it. Sometimes it feels awkward to take that first step...

But the truth is that we often make it a lot harder than it needs to be!

So, if you’ve been in situations where you had Chinese speakers around you, and thought about saying something to them but didn’t…

… check out the videos below for some common Chinese phrases you can use to help “break the ice” and start talking to...

... friends.

... coworkers.

... people you’ve just been introduced to.

... complete strangers.

Phrases For Starting A Conversation With A Chinese Friend (VIDEO)

BONUS: Download MP3 + PDF to Review This Lesson Anytime

When you see someone you know (or “half-know”), a simple greeting can help set a positive tone and often naturally lead into a conversation.

Here are three examples of casual greetings/expressions you could use:

  • 么样? zěn me yàng ?How’s it going?/What’s up?

  • 你去哪儿? nǐ qù nǎ er ?Where are you going?

  • 你吃过了吗? nǐ chī guò le ma ?(Note: Though it literally means “Have you eaten?” it’s function as a greeting is very similar to that of the phrase “How are you?” in English.) Have you eaten?

Now, if you run into a friend that you haven’t seen in a while, perhaps you’ll want to ask what’s new in their world (related to work, family, hobbies etc.)... These phrases are a good starting point for doing that:

  • 好久不见!hǎo jiǔ bú jiàn !Long time no see!

  • 最近你在做什么?zuì jìn nǐ zài zuò shén me? What have you been up to lately?

  • 家人都好吧?jiā rén dōu hǎo ba ?How’s your family?

  • 你还在星巴克工作吗?nǐ hái zài xīng bā kè gōng zuò ma ?Are you still working at Starbucks?

  • 身体怎么样?shēn tǐ zěn me yàng ?How are you feeling? lit. “How’s your body?” (commonly used with elder people)

Want more examples of phrases native speakers use when they run into a friend they haven’t seen for a long time? Check out this authentic Chinese street interview video.

Phrases For Starting A Conversation With A Chinese Coworker (VIDEO)

BONUS: Download MP3 + PDF to Review This Lesson Anytime

In the office, there’s a number of ways to start talking to someone. Just consider the context and timing before dropping your conversation starter. (e.g. trying to get someone to talk to you when they’re on their way to an important meeting might not be the best option...)

Here are some questions you can use:

  • 你忙什么呢?nǐ máng shén me ne ?What are you working on?

  • 你今天工作顺利吗?nǐ jīn tiān gōng zuò shùn lì ma ?Is your work “going smoothly” today?

  • 你有几分钟的时间吗?nǐ yǒu jǐ fèn zhōng de shí jiān ma ?Do you have a few minutes?

  • 请问你对这个有什么想法?qǐng wèn nǐ duì zhè gè yǒu shén me xiǎng fǎ ?May I ask for your thoughts/opinion on this?

  • 你有听说新经理下周一开始上班吗?nǐ yǒu tīng shuō xīn jīng lǐ xià zhōu yī kāi shǐ shàng bān ma ?Did you hear that the new manager starts on Monday?

  • 你这个周末打算做什么? nǐ zhè gè zhōu mò dǎ suàn zuò shén me ?(at the end of the week): Do you have any plans for the weekend?

  • 你的周末过得怎么样?nǐ de zhōu mò guò de zěn me yàng ?(at the beginning of the week): How was your weekend?

    Want more examples of phrases native speakers use to talk to and make a great impression on their Chinese coworkers? Check out this video lesson.

    Phrases For Starting A Conversation With Someone You’ve Just Been Introduced To In Chinese (VIDEO)

BONUS: Download MP3 + PDF to Review This Lesson Anytime

Picture this: A friend of yours has just introduced you to another friend of his/hers.

What can you say to get a conversation started with this person on the spot?

Well, it depends… If, for example, your friend introduces the person as someone who is studying at the same university, you could ask what subject he/she studies. Or, let’s say your friend mentions that the person is really good at a certain activity (e.g. yoga), you could ask how long he/she has been doing it for. And if your friend who makes the introduction doesn’t give you any information at all about the other person... there’s still plenty of things you can say!

  • 幸会, 幸会! xìng huì, xìng huì !Pleased to meet you!

  • 你们俩是怎样认识的?nǐ men liǎ shì zěn yàng rèn shí de ?How do you two know each other?

  • 你是哪里人?nǐ shì nǎ lǐ rén ?Where are you from?

  • 你是做什么工作的?nǐ shì zuò shén me gōng zuò de ?What do you do for a living?

  • 你是学什么的?nǐ shì xué shén me de?What are you studying?

  • 你在这里工作多久了?nǐ zài zhè lǐ gōng zuò duō jiǔ le ?How long have you been working here?

  • 做瑜伽多久了?nǐ zuò yú jiā duō jiǔ le ?How long have you been doing yoga?

Want to learn more Chinese phrases you can use to get to know new people? Asking for Personal Info in Chinese: 7 Basic Questions Every Beginner Should Know.

Phrases For Starting A Conversation With A Stranger In Chinese (VIDEO)

BONUS: Download MP3 + PDF to Review This Lesson Anytime

One of the easiest ways start a conversation with someone you don’t know in Chinese is to make a comment about something in the current context/environment, e.g. the weather. When you do that it is likely that the other person will comment on it too… (and if you look “foreign”, it’s not unlikely that you’ll hear a positive comment on the fact that you speak Chinese... Either way, the conversation has begun!)

You’re outside…

  • 今天天气非常热!jīn tiān tiān qì fēi cháng rè!It’s really hot today!

  • 太冷了!tài lěng le !It’s really cold!

  • 看起来要下雨了。kàn qǐ lái yào xià yǔ le. It looks like it’s going to rain.

  • 你的小狗真可爱。它叫什么名字nǐ de xiǎo gǒu zhēn kě ài . tā jiào shén me míng zì ?Your dog is so cute! What’s its name?

You’re at a work conference…

You can ask about the person’s job, what company they are from, and their opinions about the conference events.

  • 刚才的呈现非常好,我学了很多东西。你呢?gāng cái de chéng xiàn fēi cháng hǎo,wǒ xué le hěn duō dōng xī . nǐ ne ?That was a great presentation – I learned a lot. How about you?

  • 你在哪家公司上班?nǐ zài nǎ jiā gōng sī shàng bān ?What company do you work for?

You’re at a party...

If you’re at a party, you can start by asking how the person knows the host of the party. You can also make a comment about the food and drinks, or the music...

  • 你的连衣裙真漂亮!nǐ de lián yī qún zhēn piāo liàng !Your dress is really nice!

  • 你是上海人吗?nǐ shì shàng hǎi rén ma ?Are you Shanghainese?

  • 你是怎样认识小张的?nǐ shì zěn yàng rèn shí xiǎo zhāng de ?How do you know Xiaozhang?

  • 你吃过那些饺子吗?味道好极了!nǐ chī guò nà xiē jiǎo zi ma ?wèi dào hǎo jí le !Have you tried the dumplings? They’re delicious!

You’re at an art exhibition...

  • 这幅画真有意思。你觉得呢?zhè fú huà zhēn yǒu yì sī . nǐ jué de ne ?That’s an interesting painting. What do you think of it?

You’re at a bar or club...

  • 这首歌真好听,我喜欢爵士。你呢?zhè shǒu gē zhēn hǎo tīng ,wǒ xǐ huān jué shì. nǐ ne ?This is a great song – I like Jazz. How about you?

You’re at a coffee shop...

  • 这里的咖啡怎么样?zhè lǐ de kā fēi zěn me yàng ?How’s the coffee here?

You’re at a park or playground...

  • 你的女儿真可爱!她多大了?nǐ de nǚ ér zhēn kě ài ! tā duō dà le?Your daughter is so lovely! How old is she?

On a computer: Right click on the button and select "Save as" or "Download"

On a phone: Tap and hold your finger on the button for a second (and you'll see the download option in the menu that pops up)

Do you have any interesting experiences or good tips related to starting conversations in Chinese? Let me know in the comments below 🙂