Pasden calls Ni Hao Ma? (你好吗?) a “greeting with training wheels” noting that while it is one of the first phrases foreigners learn “Chinese people themselves rarely use is.
I can confirm what many others have also observed: that native speakers very rarely use 你好吗？ with each other….
But over time, I’ve noticed another thing. Chinese people do say 你好吗？ to foreigners. They’re especially likely to use it with foreigners when they know the foreigner knows very little Chinese, or if they suspect as much and are just testing the waters…
I now view the 你好吗？ phenomenon as a sort of linguistic training wheels. It’s something you learn early on, and then try to move away from as quickly as possible.
Wolfe calls nǐ hǎo (你好) “A Very Fake Greeting.” He shared an encounter he had with a teacher in China.
“Nǐ hǎo 你好,” I said. He stopped his walk and said, in all sincerity that most people don’t say “nǐ hǎo” 你好 as a greeting. It just sounds too fake (tài jiǎ de 太假的)….. He was perfectly serious. He was even explaining it to one of his Chinese colleagues who was standing there too (as if he didn’t know!). The colleague, in all earnestness, was agreeing and adding little tid bits of his own to the advice.
I wouldn’t say it’s insincere, but it’s just that among all the choices of ways to greet people, it tends to be much less used in informal conversation. How many times do you use hello vs. other greetings (hey, hi, yo, how’s it going, etc.) in English?
Pasden weighs in on the nǐ hǎo (你好) issue on his own blog.
你好 isn’t evil. Neither is “hello.” You can’t be friends with the whole world, and your language reflects that, in any language.
Non-native speakers will encounter both Ni Hao (你好) and Ni Hao Ma (你好吗) so it should be taught. It presents an opportunity for a cultural lesson to new learners that there are other ways to greet people in Chinese, especially friends.