How To Refer Friends In Korean

Do you know ‘Friends’ in Korean culture mean different from ones in the western world?

Friend is 친구 in Korean and you pronounce it as [chin gu]. For the natural pronunciation, it can be pronounced as [ching gu].

My experience with friends in Canada

It seems the western culture defines friends depending on how close you are to someone. This can be due to the length of time you’ve known the person or admiration towards someone etc. But, this is regardless of their age.

First I thought it was strange to see younger western kids calling someone who’s a lot older than them a friend. This can be a great advantage if you like to meet new people without having a barrier to the age hierarchy. However, this can sometimes lack a certain level of respect that Korean culture has towards someone who’s older than them.

Friends in Korean culure

Personally, I have never called someone who’s at a different age a friend. In our culture, we refer people by their statuses and titles, therefore, between close ‘Friends’ (western term), we don’t call each other ‘Friends’ if we are not the same age.

Usually when you are a student in schools (up to high school), peers you study with are mostly likely the same age as you, 99% in my personal experience. This means almost everyone you hang out with is the same age friend. I believe this can happen due to our educational system that you don’t jump ahead because you have a better grade than others.

Once you enter a college or a university, you may see more diverse age groups as men must serve in military service for two years and they usually do it during the school years. That means when they come back to school from the service, they will be older than other students. Another common reason is some people take the Suneung (Korean version of SAT) more than once to enter a school. They will be older than other students as well.

Once you get a job in the work force, you may not care about age as much because titles in a company override age. However, if you meet people outside of work, you may still need to know their age to figure out how to refer them if they prefer being called non-title.

For these reasons (probably many other reasons as well), we need to figure out who is older or younger than you by asking “How old are you? 몇살이에요?” [myeo ssarieyo]. This is not a rude question as this is necessary to determine how to refer someone. If you are asking the question to someone who is clearly older than you, this could be rude depending on the individual.

How to refer friends in Korean

Someone who’s older than you

오빠 [obba]: Older man called by a younger female
[hyeong]: Older man called by a younger male
언니 [eonni]: Older woman called by a younger female
누나 [nuna]: Older woman called by a younger male

Someone who’s younger than you

동생 [dongsaeng]: Younger sibling
남동생 [namdongsaeng]: Male younger sibling
여동생 [yeodongsaeng]: Female younger sibling
Their names

Which culture do you prefer when it comes to referring friends?”
Comment below. 🙂

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