What do you call your delivery driver? How about a customer?

In 1921, the first national congress platform of the fledgling Chinese Communist Party proclaimed that “anyone regardless of gender or nationality, who accepts the position and policies of the party, is recommended by a party member…can become our comrade.” This set the stage for “comrade” (同志, tóngzhì) to become a general salutation for not only party members, but among the masses after the Communist Revolution.

Today, provincial party organs issue periodic bulletins reminder party members not to abandon the term 同志 in favor of hierarchical position titles or “jianghu” terms of address reminiscent of martial arts movies, such as 大哥 (dàgē, big brother) or 老大 (lǎodà, boss): They not only promote inequality but are “confusing,” noted a People’s Daily report last year. Traditionally, Chinese terms for addressing others vary precisely based on one’s seniority and closeness relative the addressee, and the rules are doubly confusing when it comes to strangers whose social status isn’t immediately obvious. Here’s a rough guide for addressing strangers in Chinese—and see if it makes you think the revolutionaries were right to want to use a salutation with no social baggage.

Option 1: Faux familiarity

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author Hatty Liu

Hatty Liu is the managing editor of The World of Chinese, and an award-winning communications researcher. Born in China, and raised in China, Canada, and the US, she leverages her cross-cultural identity to create more empathetic knowledge across national boundaries.

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