How to interpret 不好意思 in Chinese

The Chinese expression 不好意思 can be very useful but difficult to understand. In this article, I will cover both basic usages as well as advanced interpretations. Of course, we will start with Peppa Pig examples!

Literally, we can break down 不好意思 to 不好, or not good, and, 意思 or meaning. Perhaps one’s first instinct is to interpret it as ill-intentioned, or something to do with “bad meaning”. That’s far from true. In fact, 不好意思 does not always have a negative connotation.

Definitions of 不好意思

From a popular Chinese dictionary, there are two definitions of 不好意思 and they are deeply connected:

  1. Due to some unstated or implied reason, somebody must do or must not do something;
  2. Embarrassed, shy, timid.

Two instances of 不好意思 have showed up so far on the Peppa Pig episodes I’ve covered! I will discuss them and expand further on how you’d interpret the expression in spoken Chinese.

For the above definitions, I consulted 新华字典 which is the dictionary I used as a Chinese pupil. It is no easy task to “translate” Chinese definitions into English. I did not use literal translation (It’s actually impossible!) but rather tried to explain it in my own words.

If you want to take your Chinese learning to the next level, try to look up Chinese words in a Chinese dictionary rather than going through English to Chinese dictionary. Based on my previous assessment, I must say Google Translate is pretty good. However, using Chinese to explain Chinese words is a totally different game. Try it.

不好意思 is similar to “excuse me” or “sorry about the inconvenience”

These usages are related to the first definition of 不好意思, where the unstated reason for using 不好意思 or expressing “sorry” is related to asking for help or causing inconvenience.

In S01E03 Part 6, Daddy Pig asked Dr. Peppa: 不好意思,医生,你能帮我吗?

If you’re politely asking for help from somebody in public or somebody who you’re not close to, 不好意思 is common conversation starter, such as in the context above where Daddy Pig politely asked Dr. Peppa to check his belly.

You can use this sentence to ask strangers any questions: 不好意思, 请问…. for example if you want to know how to get to a destination 不好意思,请问 + [destination] + 怎么去? Excuse me, could you please tell me how to get to [destination]?

Similarly, if you want to get around somebody on a busy street, you could say: 不好意思,借过一下 Excuse me, let me pass through.

I would not jump to say 不好意思 means “sorry” because they are not interchangeable in many contexts. If you want to say sorry, go for 对不起 to be safe. However, if you particularly mean “sorry about the inconvenience” and if you want to be ultra polite, you can use 不好意思 as a sentence starter such as in the following contexts:

  • A store agent could tell you “Sorry, we’re not open tomorrow” 不好意思,明天我们不开门”.
  • Somebody can politely ask you to stop doing something, for example, 不好意思,这里不能抽烟 Sorry, you’re not allowed to smoke cigarettes here.

不好意思 can be used to describe shy, timid, and lightly embarrassed

S01E04 Part 4, the narrator described George Pig as 有点不好意思 as he was hesitating to talk to Polly Parrot. George is pretty shy.

Another word to describe being shy in Chinese is 害羞. They are quite similar, however, compared to 害羞, 不好意思 is less serious and less strong in terms of “shyness”. If somebody showing a slight hesitation, one is likely to call that 不好意思 rather than 害羞. One would be more likely to use 害羞 if somebody is blushing, and if one is blushing, you can still call that 不好意思. I’d say 不好意思 is more widely used than 害羞.

There is a Chinese word, 尴尬, to describe being embarrassed. However, 尴尬 is way too strong. 不好意思 is lightly embarrassed at best and it’s usually harmless. However, if I have to translate 不好意思 into English sometimes the best word would be embarrassed.

Let’s dive into some examples! I provide full translation of the examples but I will focus on 不好意思. The examples may be hard to explain due to culture reasons. If you have any questions on other parts of the examples, please don’t be 不好意思 to ask!

她每次见到他都觉得不好意思 She feels shy every time she sees him.

不好意思 is often used in the context of feeling shy while dealing with a crush.

被老师表扬了,他都不好意思了 Praised by the teacher, he’s feeling slightly embarrassed.

I can’t explain this without going into some discussion on Chinese culture. Generally speaking we’re taught to act and feel humble. So sometimes, one may end up feeling slightly embarrassed when praised, especially if it happened in public. No negative connotation here.

你帮我这么多忙,我多不好意思啊 You helped me so much, oh how embarrassing of me!

In this context, the speaker is implying both slight embarrassment and indebtedness.

你好意思吗? or 你好不好意思啊? Depends on the context.

Depending on the context, these could either be said in a playful way or in a demanding and negative way. If used in playful, less serious situations, they can be loosely interpreted as “aren’t you shameless?” Let’s say a close friend asked help from me over and over again, I could call him shameless and ask him rhetorically: 又来找我帮忙,你好意思吗? “Asking for help again, aren’t you shameless?”

If said in a demanding say, these questions sound like strong accusations as in “aren’t you ashamed (for what you’ve done)!?” As I typed out the question, I thought of a daughter yelling at her dad’s mistress.

The first and the second interpretations from the dictionary are not totally disjoint. There are often situations where you express both “sorry” and “embarrassed” at the same time. When it comes to 面子, these two concepts are deeply connected.

Let me try to come up with an example that describe this intricate concept. Let’s say a 80 year-old granny is trying to donate her life savings to a disaster fund, the charity may very well likely say:

我们不好意思拿您的钱. Due to social conventions, we can’t accept your money.
不好意思 in this sentence is related to being embarrassed. Clearly the 80 year-old needs her money and therefore the charity is not supposed to accept her money. (Note that the sentence does not state whether the money is accepted or not in the end. It’s just that they are not supposed to accept it due to implied social reasons.)

What should you do with 不好意思 in Chinese?

To start off, I would recommend that you practice using 不好意思 in straightforward situations, such as to start a sentence to mean “Excuse me” and “Sorry about the inconvenience”.

If you come across the expression in Chinese media in more complicated contexts, try to interpret it with the culture connotations in mind. Over time, you will accumulate enough contexts to know when and when not to use 不好意思 in Chinese!

Again, don’t be 不好意思 to ask me any questions!

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