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Chinese Lesson: When to use 不好意思
The Mandarin Chinese phrase 不好意思 (bù hǎo yì si) is frequently used in Chinese culture as a way of saying "excuse me," "embarrassed," or “sorry.” The literal translation of 不好意思 (bù hǎo yì si) is “not good meaning.”
Here are examples of instances in which it would be appropriate to use this phrase.
Receiving Gifts
The Chinese tradition of gift-giving demands that the gift is first refused, and finally accepted with 谢谢 (xiè xie) or 不好意思 (bù hǎo yì si). Using the latter phrase conveys a sense of being abashed, like using the term "you shouldn't have" or "there's no need" in English. This dance of giving and receiving gifts is done for any type of gift.
不好意思 (bù hǎo yì si) is also used as a casual apology. The phrase could be used, for instance, if you bump into someone on a crowded subway or if you have kept customers waiting. In these scenarios, 不好意思 (bù hǎo yì si) means something akin to "excuse me" or "sorry."
Similarly, you can say 不好意思 (bù hǎo yì si) when you need to interrupt someone for a question, such as asking for the bathroom, directions, or a similar favor. You can say 不好意思, 请问... (bù hǎo yì si, qǐng wèn), which means "Excuse me, but can I ask..."
When apologizing for more serious inconveniences, you can use the phrase 对不起 (duì bù qǐ) which means "I'm sorry." For really serious mistakes that call for an apology, you can use the phrase 原谅我 (yuánliàng wǒ) which means "forgive me."
Character Traits
Because 不好意思 (bù hǎo yì si) can also mean "embarrassed," the Chinese phrase can be used to describe a person's characteristics. For example, if someone is shy and easily embarrassed, you could say 他 (male) / 她 (female) 不好意思 (tā bù hǎo yì si). This means "He / she is embarrassed." Likewise, if you are trying to encourage someone to be less bashful, you can say 不要不好意思 (bù yào bù hǎo yì si), which translates to "don't be shy."  
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