praying in the third person

I learned something very important about the Chinese language within the last two weeks.

It actually shocked me to learn something so important this late in the game.  How I missed it all these years, I do not know.

Here is what I learned: In Chinese, when you want to show respect, you use the third person and avoid personal pronouns such as "you" and "me."

Manager in Chinese Now, I already knew that in Chinese cultures you don't call people by their given name.  For example, I would address my sister as "younger sister" not Sarah.  And, my husband as "hubby" (literally "old man") not Lawrance.  And, teacher's get called "teacher" not Mrs. Wu; bosses get called "boss" and so on. 

This concept is covered in Intro to Chinese 101.  Nothing surprising there.

But, it wasn't until I've overheard my husband on the phone many times recently talking to his boss--a manager.  Unlike other conversations, I heard no "you."  I only heard her title "manager."  So, for example instead of "I got your message," he'd say "I got the manager's message" and instead of "thank you, manager" it is "thanks, manager." 

Bells were ringing all over in my head . . . connections being made left and right.  I was totally "getting" many aspects of culture (that I thought I knew) at a whole new deeper level.  It was a great feeling.

Addressing someone by their title ALL the time and avoiding using even the polite "ning" form of you, is how you show respect.  GOT IT!!

After making this connection last week, I asked my husband about it . . .and then I asked him about his prayers. 

When he prays in Chinese he NEVER uses the first person.  So, instead of "I want to thank you for my wife" the prayer is "Child thanks God for the wife given to Child."  And instead of "Please help me to . . . ," it is "please help Child to . . . "

Child in ChineseWhen I asked him about this he said something along the lines of "it just seems so haughty and selfish to go in front of God and say 'I,' 'I,' 'I,' 'I,' 'I.'  Using the third person is not just showing respect, but is also is a reminder of my place before him.  That I come to him not because of who I am but because of who he is.  It is a reminder of my position as fully dependent upon him for everything."

So, my exciting linguistic cultural breakthrough led to something even more exciting and meaningful . . . a special reminder about prayer.  I couldn't stop thinking about the implications of calling myself "child" in prayer.

Amazing how something that native English speakers use to be proud and arrogant--speaking of themselves in the third person--is used to show humility and respect by native Chinese speakers.

So, I now know that avoiding "you" in Chinese and replacing it with the person's title is a great sign of respect, but avoiding "me" and replacing it with a word that describes my relationship with the person is an even greater sign of respect.

And, as I often say in class, "interesting, huh?"


  1. This is so interesting! I just shared your post with my "old man" and he also found it interesting. I always love learning about other cultures. Thanks so much for enlightening us.

  2. Wow, thanks for that! Even though I've grown up in Singapore and learnt Mandarin in school, a lot of the culture escapes me. I feel that it's a bit of a shame that my parents brought me up as pre-dominantly English-speaking. So much of culture is embedded in language! Now I understand why my multi-lingual grandmother refers to herself in third person when she prays in Chinese!

  3. Amanda,
    I stumbled across your blog as I was searching for information on the typhoon (we have a daughter we hope to adopt early next year in one of the provinces hit on the mainland) and came across your most recent entry on Roaming Souls as I searched on Google. I was intrigued by your profile and decided to do some back reading. You are now in my RSS feed. This post was so interesting to me! I'm so thankful I found your site for another glimpse into the amazing culture of my three children!
    Kristi, Mommy to Kylie, Caleb, and soon to be Darcy

  4. Hi Kristi!!
    My blogging as of late has been rather sporadic and sparse, but maybe that
    will change one day soon. Thanks for taking time to leave a comment . . .
    glad to "meet you."
    I'll check out your blog in a little more depth later on, but the title is
    really cute! :)
    in joy,


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...