What is the most effective way to express non-interest, cynicism and sarcasm on the Chinese Internet? The answer is: hehe (呵呵).
Originally a phrase that approximates the sound of a giggle, “hehe” has acquired an array of new meanings in the age of social media. Knowledge of the evolution of the term will help explain why the above conversation between two prominent online opinion leaders got shared by thousands of Chinese netizens within hours.
Hehe was first used in online chats and on message boards to simply convey laughter. Later it evolves into some sort of a perfunctory term of detachment and alienation, used when parties involved in a conversation have nothing more to say or add, or are simply not interested.
In 2013, hehe was voted the most hurtful and annoying phrase to use in a chat. Why? Because “seeing hehe in a conversation is an instant turnoff.” Many netizens commented.
“It annoys me when my friends say ‘hehe’ to me during a conversation. It makes me feel like I’m stranger than a stranger to them.” One netizen shared his frustration.
The irony is, though everybody hates it, hehe is also one of the most frequently used term in online chats or comments in China. A simple search of “hehe” on Weibo, China’s leading social media platform, returned more than 760 million active conversations.
The most subtle use of hehe is to express sarcasm, such as how it is used in the conversation at the beginning. Another example would be:
“China’s national men’s soccer team will make it to the World Cup in 20 years.”
It’s a less in-your-face way to call someone to stop bullshiting. As one netizen explained: “When I type out ‘hehe’ in a chat, not only am I not laughing, I’m actually thinking about the F word in my mind.”
A post on Zhihu, China’s Quora, lists a few scenarios where “hehe” is most commonly used.
Say “hehe” when you don’t want to continue the conversation. Real meaning: Bored and annoyed.
Say “hehe” when commenting on stories of exposed corruptions or other scandals. Real meaning: Helpless anger.
Say “hehe” when someone say or do something you don’t agree with. Real meaning: Dumbass.
Use “hehe” with discretion. Hehe.
Source: Offbeat China