Dina R. Yoshimi and Haidan Wang, Editors, 2007
Selected Papers from Pragmatics in the CJK Classroom: The State of the Art
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"Love you" doesn't mean "I love you": Just a way to say goodbye
The nature of leave-taking and its pragmatic applications in Mandarin Chinese

Jin-huei Enya Dai
Monterey Institute of International Studies



A common component of conducting a leave-taking event among American family members over the telephone involves a social ritual to close conversation. Such a ritual includes an optional "love you" which utilizes the close proximity, in terms of family relationship, to politely close a conversation over the phone. "Love you" in this context, as a consequence, doesn't mean "I love you", but prompts a way to bid farewell. In Mandarin Chinese, the parallel function of prompting leave-taking is also manifested in 下次有空再聊 xiàcì yǒukòng zàiliáo (Chat with you next time.). I approach the speech event of leave-taking in Mandarin Chinese by exploring its pragmatic imperative (Yoshimi, 2005), nature, and social ritual pattern. I follow Kinnison's (2000) classification built upon linguistic routines used by American and Chinese guests at leave-taking after dinner. Additionally, I further point out elements and strategies involved in a leave-taking event employed in different situations in Mandarin Chinese, e.g., telephone conversation, street encounters, and peer-gathering. Moreover, I construct a pragmatics-focused pedagogical model that embodies forms of attention getters, apology forms, time-relevant excuses, concern for the host/interlocutor's welfare, and repairs. Application of this model to the instruction of leave-taking in a CFL classroom will be provided to demonstrate the relation of language use and pragmatic function.


Epilogue: The words don't mean IT!

In an episode of the U.S. syndicated show Friends, Emily says "Thank you" in response to Ross's heartfelt expressive "I love you". The humor comes in with the mismatch of the speech acts employed by Ross and Emily (shown in Figure 1). The face value of "I love you" is taken as a compliment instead of an expressive. To respond to a compliment, the utterance "Thank you" is utilized as if the expressive "I love you" were taken as a favor by Emily. The punch line "Thank you" is perceived as funny because it postulates the juxtaposition of an expressive taken as a compliment and it also creates an unexpected pragmatic routine in the conversation. This mismatch is presented in Figure 1, which provides an outline of where the humor kicks in when words just don't seem to mean what they mean.

This image shows Figure 1, as described in the text
Figure 1. "I love you" and "Thank you"

Another example is 谢谢 xièxiè (thanks) in Chinese. U.S. learners of Chinese may know 谢谢 xièxiè (thanks) is used to express gratitude in Chinese, but may not know that it is traditionally never used in response to a compliment (Walker, 2001), although the younger generation in China and Taiwan has begun to use it in response to a compliment. A diagrammatic representation of the expanded usage of 谢谢 xièxiè (thanks) is outlined in Figure 2.

This image shows Figure 2, as described in the text
Figure 2. The extension of the meaning of "thank you"

The frequent expression of "love you" at the end of a telephone call is another example. The utterance is used between family members or couples, and evokes the solidarity between the caller and the recipient before ending a phone conversation. This utterance confirms the relationship between the two parties and functions to end the phone call. It serves as a reminder of solidarity from elders to youngsters or a response from youngsters to their elders before conducting a leave-taking event at the end of a phone call. The frequency of this utterance is so high that it became a punch line in a famous pizza chain commercial. The pizza clerk enthusiastically answers a caller's questions and takes the caller's order. The social awkwardness of the clerk's reply is conveyed in "I love you, too" in response to an unheard but implied utterance "love you" by the caller before s/he ends the phone call. Pragmatic awkwardness is embodied in the response infused with eye gaze and facial expression, in which it as a whole evokes a humorous effect. Does "love you" really mean "I love you" or is it just a way to say goodbye before exiting a leave-taking event on the phone?


The nature of leave-taking in Mandarin Chinese and English

Prior research (Goffman, 1971; Knapp, Hart, Friedrich, & Shulman, 1973; Laver 1981) has defined a leave-taking event as a phatic communion that smoothes the transition from a state of interaction to a state of separateness. A cooperative leave-taking event requires mitigation and consolidation. Thus, the two major functions which the leave-taking event performs are to signal inaccessibility, and to signal support for the relationship. Per Knapp et al. (1973, p. 195), a normative paradigm of leave-taking in English is initiated by an utterance "yeah", buffered by "well", then depending on the (in)formality of the relationship of the interlocutors, different speech acts are employed. For example, appreciation: "I really want to thank you," or internal legitimizer: "I guess I'm finished," or external legitimizer: "I can see you're busy, so I'll leave" are employed in a formal relationship. In an informal relationship, welfare concern like "now take it easy" or continuance "I'll see ya later" are employed (Knapp et al., 1973).

The studies of House (1982), Kinnison (2000), and Knapp et al. (1973) posit that various speech acts are employed in a parting event. They are: announcing, giving an excuse, consolidation, invitation, offering, appreciating/complimenting, apology, showing gratitude, recommendation/advising, benediction, suggesting future activities, no-bother-you suggestion, closing. Among these speech acts, the no-bother-you suggestion is only found in a leave-taking event in Mandarin Chinese (Kinnison, 2000). Kinnison further compares the different speech acts employed in Mandarin Chinese and English (see Table 1).

Table 1. Speech acts employed in leave-taking in Chinese and English (Kinnison, 2000: 50)
Stages Chinese English
Initial Closing Announcing leave-taking
Giving excuses
Consolidating friendship
Announcing leave-taking
Giving excuses
Giving thanks
Pre-closing Announcing leave-taking
Offering (help)
Consolidating friendship
Inviting Apologizing
Suggesting future activities
Offering (food, help, etc.)
Giving excuses
Giving thanks
Closing "No-bother-you" request
Closing (exchange of terminals)
Closing (exchange of terminals)

Wang (2005, pp. 61-63) identifies three categories of leave-taking in Mandarin Chinese: temporary leave-taking, occasional leave-taking, and one-time leave-taking. She further divides these three categories into finer sub-categories depending on the social status and relation between interlocutors, and the involvement of little or no personal interaction. My work, however, postulates the nature and frame of leave-taking in Chinese and how Mandarin Chinese and English frames operate differently. The frame of [LEAVE-TAKING] among the Chinese community involves three stages: INITIAL-CLOSING, PRE-CLOSING, and CLOSING, as suggested in Kinnison (2000). I propose that fundamentally embedded within these three stages are the operational concepts of SELF-OTHERS, FACE, TIME, CONCERN, SOLIDARITY and SOCIAL REPAIRS. According to Langacker (2005), cognition, being embodied and contextually embedded, provides a venue to examine pragmatic appropriateness and inappropriateness to a larger extent. I utilize this venue to discuss these operational concepts below.


Conceptualization of leave-taking in Mandarin Chinese

Hu and Grove (1991, p. 25) document the following telling by a British teacher of English on her first greeting experience in China (emphasis mine):

When I first went to Hong Kong…, I had no idea either about the Chinese language or the culture. Shortly after my arrival, I went to the bank on my way to school. I was extremely surprised when the bank clerk asked me if I had had my lunch. In British culture, this question would be regarded as an indirect invitation to lunch, and between unmarried young people it indicates the young man's interest in dating the girl. Since he was a complete stranger, I was quite taken aback.

I gloss the excerpt of the above paragraph as a new experience in a new place at a certain time:

→ don't know what to expect
→ engaging in a speech event
→ feeling awkward based on lack of knowledge of the target culture/the target language and the cognitive reasoning of the base culture/the base language
→ feeling withdrawn from the target culture/the target language due to misunderstanding of the cognitive differences perceived by the speech community

I correlate the glossing to Robert Smith's (1972, in Walker, 2001) four phases of learning: don't know what we don't know, know what we don't know, don't know what we know, know what we know. I further compose an experiential sketch of a speech event in the target culture in Figure 3 as follows.

This image shows Figure 3, as described in the text
Figure 3. Experiential sketch of a speech event

To relate this experiential sketch to a leave-taking event, we review what we know about leave-taking: it requires indicating one's intention to leave the occasion without causing the other to lose face. What we do not know about conducting leave-taking in an unfamiliar culture is the prepatterned linguistic forms. Also, these forms themselves have significant contextual meaning. The context for these structured forms provides and reflects the entrenched conceptual prominence viewed among Chinese speakers. In order to discuss the prominent profiling of the leave-taking event conceptualization embedded in Mandarin Chinese, I divide the fundamental cognitive differences into three subsections: 1) commercial event and leave-taking event; 2) self-others; and 3) you-patterned linguistic codes.

Commercial event and leave-taking event

Per Fillmore (1977), a [COMMERCIAL EVENT] frame involves at least four participants: goods, buyer, money, and seller. The six most common verbs in a [COMMERCIAL EVENT] are [BUY], [SELL], [CHARGE], [PAY], [SPEND] and [COST]. The frames of these six verbs evoke the aforementioned four participants into different perspectives in relation to one another. To extend this concept of frame to [LEAVE-TAKING EVENT] in Chinese, concepts such as SELF-OTHERS, FACE, TIME, CONCERN, SOLIDARITY and SOCIAL REPAIRS are involved. Among these concepts, the SELF-OTHERS concept is considered significantly different from that in English.


The word order of 群我 qúnwǒ "group-I (relation)" instead of *我群 wǒqún "I-group (relation)" in Chinese suggests the sigificance of collectivism in Chinese society: the group always precedes the individual. The construct of 我 wǒ "I/oneself" is not based on individualism but highly correlated to an individual's relation to other people in the surroundings. The Chinese conceptualization of 我 wǒ "I" is comprised of 大我 dàwǒ "big-I: the greater self that involves the public/state/nation," and 小我 xiăowǒ "small-I: the little self, only oneself, individual." Within this scope of "big" and "small", one's relation to others is established. For example, in order to consolidate the relationship in a leave-taking event in Chinese, one's relation to others receives more prominence rather than that given to the self because one has to show concern for others first and, then, to indicate his/her intention to depart. In other words, the [OTHERS-oriented] self (Gao, Ting-Toomey, & Kao, 1998) underlies [YOU-patterned] linguistic codes in Chinese. I refer to this as the SELF-OTHERS concept. The abstraction of this concept is exemplified in Figure 4.

This image shows Figure 4, as described in the text
Figure 4. The SELF-OTHERS concept in Chinese

Such a view is reflected in Chinese social ritual routines, and is constituted by the [OTHERS-oriented] perspectives and realized in [YOU-patterned] linguistic forms; for example, 一定很累了吧, 那, 先回去了 Nǐ yídìng hěn lèi le ba, nà wǒ xiān huíqu le. (You must be very tired, I should go home.). What determines this perspective, in my opinion, is that Chinese people put considerable value on interpersonal relationships (Ren, 2002), where reciprocity is a key principle of a cooperative interaction. Interaction in Chinese is 來往 láiwăng "come-go: interaction" or 往來 wănglái "go-come: interaction"; and emphasizes the saying 禮尚往來 lǐ shàng wăng lái (Courtesy demands reciprocity.). These phrases present interpersonal interaction in terms of reciprocal motion. Politeness phenomena in Chinese are associated with two major ideas: 面子 miànzi (face) the public image and liăn (face) the self image (Gao et al., 1998). A leave-taking event is highly risky to both notions of face and requires the departing party to respect and bestow the host's 面子 miànzi (face) and save the guest's liăn (face) so as not to be rude. Otherwise, an embarrassing situation is unavoidable. For example, the excerpt below, the "dim sum" case (Wang, 2005, pp. 20-21), shows the interaction among a Chinese host, an American student, and other guests at the Chinese host's house.

C. H.:拿点儿点心走吧, 回宿舍吃。
Ná diănr diănxin zǒu ba , huí sùshè chī.
"Take some dim sum when you leave; you can eat it in the dorm."
A. S.:谢谢。
"Thank you." [and takes some dim sum]
C. H.:再拿一个吧!
Zài ná yíge ba!
"Take one more."
A. S.:谢谢。
"Thanks." [and takes some more]
{Both parties were at loss, and felt embarrassed}
C. H.to other guests: 他真的很喜欢吃这个点心。
Tā zhēnde hěn xǐhuan chī zhège diănxin.
"He really likes to eat these dim sum." (Wang, 2005, pp. 20-21)

The American student's failure to successfully act in this situation suggests his/her inability to recognize the host's turn as a signal of the PRE-CLOSING stage of leave-taking; as a result, the host did not know how to act accordingly but produced a humorous remark, which possibly serves as her intention to save both parties' faces as well. Then how may one introduce to Chinese as a Foreign Language (CFL) learners a successful leave-taking event in Mandarin Chinese? In my opinion, I recommend to introduce [OTHERS-oriented] perspective which leads to [YOU-patterned] linguistic codes in a leave-taking event.

Leave-taking and you-patterned linguistic codes

Usually a leave-taking event in Mandarin Chinese is accomplished with an attention getter, buffers and particles to initiate the closing, providing a suggestion in the pre-closing, and then continuation to the terminal phase which leads to the final closing stage. Table 2 exemplifies some instances of attention getters, buffers, particles, and phrases used to continue to the terminal phase.

Table 2. Attention getters, buffers and particles
attention getters 哎呀 aiya, ai, ah
buffers hăo ,好了 hăo le ,好的 hăo de dé, xíng
particles ah, … la, … ba, … oh, … lo
continuance to terminal 那就… nà jiù…

Terms of address follow the attention getters and precede the closing stage. In discussing terms of address, Blum points out that "words that name people also name and thus create relationships among speakers and hearers. Face is bestowed through naming practices…" (1997, pp. 371-372, emphasis mine). Blum's analysis reflects the significance of the SELF-OTHERS relation and face bestowal through naming practices. The use of terms of address occurs in the initial closing and closing. The initial closing stage draws the attention of the interlocutor, shows respect, and further consolidates solidarity when conducting a leave-taking event. The closing stage normally starts with a terminal exchange followed by the use of terms of address.

The following examples of ritual phrases used in leave-taking that demonstrate [YOU-patterned] linguistic codes (Kinnison, 2000) are based on Kinnison's and my own data.

Nǐ gāi zăodiăn xiūxi le.
You should rest early.

Nín qù máng nín de,…
You go ahead to do what you need to do…

Nǐmen xīnkǔ le yī tiān le.
You were busy the whole day!

Nǐ tīng wǒ shuōhuà shuō zhème jiǔ le, yídìng hěn lèi le ba!
You must be so tired after listening to me for so long.

Some examples also involve utterances that concern others' well-being:

Dărăo nǐmen zhème jiǔ le, zhēn bùhăoyìsi.
I feel embarrassed that I have disturbed you for so long.

Bié sòng le, bié sòng le. Nín liănglăo hăohāo xiūxi ba.
Don't see me off. You have a good rest.

Zuìjìn tiānqì zhuăn liáng le, nín yào duō băozhòng. Xiàcì zài lái bàifăng.
It's getting colder these days. Take good care. I will come visit you next time.

Nǐ zăodiăn xiūxi ba, míngtiān yìzăo háiyào shàngbān ne.
You rest early today. You have to work tomorrow morning.

Some examples often contain time-related excuses which function as cues to to signal one's exit from an ongoing event.

Shíjiān bù zăo le.
It's not early/It's late now.

Tiān dōu hēi le .
It's getting dark.

Dōu jiǔdiăn le.
[Uh!] It's nine already.

Wǒ kuài chídào le.
I am late [gotta go].

Shàngkè yào chí le.
I am late for school.

Lúzishang de dōngxi yào shāojiāo le.
The stuff on the stove is going to be burnt.

American Idol 快开始了。
American Idol kuài kāishǐ le.
American Idol is about to start!

Following the time-related excuses is the announcement of one's departure, which in Chinese may be called 告别/告辞 gàobié /gàocí (tell-separation/departure).

Wǒ xiān zǒu le /wǒ zǒu le.
I've got to go.

Wǒ děi zǒu le.
I have to go now.

Bù dărăo le.
(I) won't disturb you now.

Nà jiù xiān zhèyàng le.
Then it'll be so.

Hăo le, méishìle ba /hái yǒu shì ma ?
Okay, nothing else, right?/anything else?

To further consolidate solidarity, phrases of social repair follow after announcing one's departure. There is always the next time; the utterance of 下次 xiàcì (next time) or 改天 găitiān (some other day) are incorporated into the routine.

Xiàcì yǒukòng zài liáo.
Bye. Chat with you next time. Bye!

Nà nín duō băozhòng, xiàcì zàilái kàn nín.
Then you take good care. I'll visit you next time.

Găitiān zàilái bàifăng.
I'll visit some other time [day].

Găitiān lái wǒ jiā [hē chá].
You should come to my place some other time [day].

The final closing has different patterns of terminal phrases, for example:


Míngtiān jiàn/míng'er jiàn.
See you tomorrow.

Huíjiàn/huíjiàn nǐ míng'érge.
See you next time/tomorrow.

Calendar Unit Time+见。

Calendar Unit Time+jiàn.
See you on [Monday].

Găitiān jiàn.
See you some other time.


881/886 (online)
Bye-bye; bye-bye particle (online)

Dāi huìjiàn.
See you later.


A Chinese host tends to 送客 sòngkè (see guests off) from the door to the car. The host tends to say, 1) 慢走啊!Mànzǒu a! (Walk slowly!); 2) 开车小心!Kāichē xiăoxīn! (Drive safely!); and 3) 到家给我打个电话。Dàojiā gěiwǒ dăge diànhuà. (Call me when you get home), while the guests tend to respond, 1) 别送了,别送了。Bié sòng le, bié sòng le. (Don't see me off. (said twice)); 2) 送到这儿就好了。Sòng dào zhèr jiùhăole. (You don't need to see me off further; we can part here.); and 3) 回去吧,早点歇着。Huíqù ba, zăodiăn xiēzhe. (Go home, rest early.). Gestures and corporeal movements are also involved in this phase.


Pragmatic imperative nature and pragmatic application model

A speech event like leave-taking has a pragmatic imperative nature, and thus requires first that it be identified, later categorized, and finally employed and practiced in the language classroom. The underlying cognitive and pragmatic nature needs to be spelled out, explained, and instantiated with examples in different situations. In Table 3, I present a pragmatic formulaic template based on leave-taking in Mandarin Chinese to address the interrelationships of function, of forms, of speech acts and of instances. Utterances in these instances vary depending upon the situations encountered.

Table 3. Pragmatic formulaic template
Function Speech Acts Instances
Initiation Attention getter 啊!     A!
Term of address Politeness 刘妈妈     Liú māma
Pre-closing Apology (真)不好意思     (Zhēn) bùhăoyìsi.
Statement Giving excuses 上课快迟到了     Shàngkè kuài chídào le.
Repairs Orientation to next meeting 下次有空再聊     Xiàcì yǒukòng zài liáo.
Closing Terminal 再见/明天见!     Zàijiàn /míngtiān jiàn!


Scenarios of a leave-taking event in plausible situations

Instantiations of leave-taking are exemplified below in telephone conversations, online chat, a street encounter, and a dinner and reunion party. Data are collected from the author's interpersonal interaction.

(1) Telephone conversation
shemExample A: between friends
shema:Enya, 不好意思一定还有很多事要做,我就不浪费你的时间了。 下次有空再聊。
Enya, Bùhăoyìsi, nǐ yídìng háiyǒu hěnduōshì yàozuò, wǒ jiù bù làngfèi nǐ de shíjiān le. Hăo, nà xiàcì yǒukòng zài liáo.
"Enya, sorry, you must have much to do, then I won't waste your time. Okay, we will chat next time."
shemb: 好,再见,下次再说。
Hăo, zàijiàn, xiàcì zàishuō.
"Okay, bye. Talk to you next time."
shemExample B: between siblings (a is older than b)
Hăo le, méi shì le. Nǐ qù mángnǐde ba.
"Okay, nothing else now. Go ahead to do your stuff"
shemb: 哦,好,再见。
O, hăo, zàijiàn.
"Oh, okay, bye."
(2) Online chatting
shemExample A: between friends
Āiyā, John zài kū le. Wǒ děi zǒu le. Xiàcì zài liáo.
"Aiya, John is crying now. I have to go. Chat with you next time."
shemb: 881.1 "Bye-bye."
shemExample B: between a niece (a) and an aunt (b)
Hăole, hěn wăn le. Míngtiān zàishuō le.
"Okay, it's very late now. Talk to you tomorrow then. 886."
shemb: 881. "Bye-bye."
(3) Street encounters: between colleagues
A! Hóng lăoshī, nǐ hái yǒushì, nà míngtiān zàishuō.
"Ah, Teacher Hong, (you look like) you are busy, then talk to you tomorrow."
Āi, hăo, hăo. Míngr jiàn.
"Ai, okay, okay. See you tomorrow."
(4) Dinner/reunion party
Bófù, bómǔ. Shíjiān bù zăo le, nǐmen zăodiăn xiūxi, wǒ jiù bù dărăo le.
"Uncle, Aunt. It's late now. You go to rest early; I won't disturb you now."
shemb:还早吗! 再多坐会儿啊!…
Hái zăo ma! Zài duō zuòhuǐr a!…
"Still early! Stay a little bit longer…."

The examples above reflect interactions between people with a range of different social statuses and relationships. The strategies employed are slightly different based on the status of the interlocutors; however, the use of [YOU-patterned] linguistic codes is frequently evident.

To enhance the interrelationship between pragmatics and pedagogy in a language classroom, researchers and language instructors must be alert to speech events with a pragmatic imperative nature (Yoshimi, 2005). To introduce instruction of this dimension of the speech event in a foreign language classroom, the integration of authentic events into course materials is required; in addition, the materials must provide an explanation of the nature of pragmatic differences to the students. Learning a language involves more than using the forms in spoken interactions; learning a language must also include understanding the pragmatic function(s) and cultural content of the forms; in other words, thinking for speaking in the target culture prepares one to conduct oneself appropriately in the target language and the target culture.



I return to shed some light on the use of "love you." From the parents' viewpoint, it confirms the relationship with their children/adolescents and it serves as a reminder of their concern and care. From the adolescents' viewpoint, it sometimes serves as the second part of a coordination pair, like "ditto", "yeah, Dad/Mom, I'm gonna go." The expression has an illocutionary force of initiating a closing phase, and is usually followed by "bye" to terminate the phone call. The "love you" expression is also acquired by a granddaughter when instructed by her mother to say "love you, Grandma" before ending a phone call with her grandmother (p.c. Claire Kramsch, 2006). The relation is consolidated when the utterance is performed.

This paper articulates the prominence of SELF-OTHERS, which may be perceived differently among different speech communities, and argues for increased emphasis on pragmatics-focused instruction in the foreign language classroom. Future research needs to explore not only the differences of forms but also the basis for differences in cognition and cultural preferences so that learners can know why they are expected to act differently and will willingly act accordingly. I consider this awareness raising phase as a means of prompting and propelling the learning process; moreover, it encourages researchers to rethink the phenomenon of a speech event in a truly foreign language and culture.



1. The number 881 in Chinese is pronounced as ba-ba-yi; 881 in Chinese is homophone of "bye-bye" in English.

2. The number 886 in Chinese is pronounced as ba-ba-liu; 886 in Chinese is partial homophone of "bye-bye-lo", which bye-bye is in English and "lo" is an ending particle used by youth in Taiwan.



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