Why Laughing in Mandarin Could Get You in Trouble
Have you ever wanted to laugh in Chinese but you’re not sure exactly how? Let’s rewind a bit.
In today’s technological world, our “conversations” are often electronic rather than verbal. There are many ways to express emotions using different messaging options available, including the widely used WeChat, and therefore, several ways to express laughter electronically in Mandarin. However, not all mean the same, and not all methods are identical to the English equivalent.
Recently my Chinese friend texted me out of the blue:
“Does “hehe” (in a text message) have a negative connotation to it? Does it make you feel bad?”
The first thought that came to mind was: Of course it doesn’t! Why would it make someone feel bad? I proceeded to explain that in English“hehe” is simply a way to display a laughing emotion electronically, similar to “haha”, both being positive expressions. However, during this conversation it came to light that there exists a fundamental difference of common displays of emotion when switching between languages; often times, they are not exact translations.
As it turns out, using Chinese to text hēhē|呵呵 is not equivalent to the English “haha”. It is best to err on the side of caution when texting Chinese friends, and only use this word when you are absolutely sure it is appropriate to the situation; otherwise you may leave them feeling offended or confused. In Mandarin, hēhē|呵呵 represents an unfriendly or cold smile (lěng xiào|冷笑), which conveys underlying negativity. Below are three scenarios in which hēhē|呵呵 is used appropriately:
- Someone tells you a piece of gossip about an individual whom you dislike. Your response? “Hehe, such a jerk!” Hēhē, húndàn|呵呵,混蛋!”
- You don’t agree with something someone said. Your response? “hēhē|呵呵”.
- You are arguing with someone and you don’t feel like texting anymore. Your response? “hēhē|呵呵”
Now we know we should not use hēhē|呵呵 for all situations of laughter. So, what should we use instead? Below are three alternatives for expressing laughter in Mandarin:
- Hāhā|哈哈: The most common way to express online laughter in Chinese, much the same as the English equivalent of “haha”. In most situations, you are safe to use this expression to convey happy laughter or a smile.
- Xīxī嘻嘻: Similar to the English equivalent of “hehe” or “heehee”, it is a positive way of showing humorous slyness or cuteness. For example: I love the cookies you made so much that ate them all and didn’t leave my sister any. Hehe. You can substitute the English “hehe” in this situation for Xīxī嘻嘻in Mandarin.
- Hēihēi|嘿嘿: A mischievous, naughty (tiáopi|调皮) laugh. For example, “Hēihēi Zhè jiùshì wǒ gàn de |嘿嘿,这就是我干的!”(That situation was my doing). This can be compared to the English equivalent of “heh heh” or even “hehe”.
Finally, try to avoid transporting English phrases into your Mandarin usage. Reserve “LOL” for English text messages, as many Chinese people will not know what this means.
Shorthand methods of writing emotions are constantly changing, and it can be difficult to keep up in a second language. Next time you want to laugh in Chinese electronically, follow the above guidelines to choose the most appropriate way of displaying your digital smile for the situation at hand.
Learn more about laughing in Chinese by checking out Chinesepod QingWen lesson on different ways to say funny in Mandarin. Or, if you are talking to someone and think they sound funny when they laugh, listen to this lesson on how to say “You Laugh like a Donkey”.
Photo Sources: Wikimedia Commons