What it Means to Be Oppa, Unnie, Hyung, Noona (Older in Korea)

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Oppa (오빠) = Older male (to females) | Unnie (언니) = Older female (to females)
Hyung (형) = Older male (to males) | Noona (누나) = Older female (to males)

Depending on where you’re from, the saying “age ain’t nothing but a number” might ring true. But in Korea, it’s a BIG number. Knowing someone’s age will instantly let people know where they stand on the super hierarchical Korean respect scale. Instantly, they’ll know how to act, how to speak and how to listen.

But to first understand this post properly, you’ll have to know your Korean age. Koreans calculate age by birth year. And this means even if you’re only 1 month older than someone, but born in a different year (i.e. December 1987 vs January 1988), you’re still considered older! Just think of January 1st as a line that isn’t crossed; you’re either on one side or the other.

Here’s what to expect once you’ve figured the other people’s age:


Same Age = Friend (친구)
Being the same age in Korea means you’re equals, and you’ll be instantly labeled a friend. It doesn’t matter if you’re a really nasty person and the Korean person you just met seriously hates your guts. For people of the same age, the actual term used in Korean to refer to people of the same age is “friend” (친구 – chingu). And although most Koreans will use honorific language to show respect to people that they don’t know too well, many Koreans will drop the really annoying honorific stuff and just go straight to casual Korean once they find out they’re the same age. And it’s not just language. Finding out that someone is the same age automatically makes Koreans a little more comfortable as there aren’t any expectations that are associated with being younger or older.

Tip: Dropping honorific language is common for younger Koreans. But the older you get, the less professional/mature you look by speaking casual Korean, even if you’re the same age.


Being Older (Oppa/Unnie/Hyung/Noona)
Since Korea is super Confucian (some say more than China!), being older, even by 1 year, automatically means you’ll be getting what Aretha Franklin wanted: R-E-S-P-E-C-T! Now that doesn’t mean you’ll be getting super hardcore 90 degree bows from someone that’s only a few months younger than you (darn!). But you’re definitely higher up the totem pole, and that means your opinions are more respected as you’re older and wiser (at least theoretically :P). So that means even if you’re an unproductive 35 year old man-child that pretty much adds no value to society (except for your max level Diablo III character), you won’t be getting much life advice and/or nagging from your 19 year old coworker at the local convenience store. In Korea, it’s just not her place to tell you how much you suck at life. (That’s why things can get tricky when a boss is younger than his/her workers.)


Being Younger (Dongsaeng)
But being younger doesn’t mean you have to shut up and be still. Being younger has many perks. Because you’re younger, many older Koreans will generally feel the need to take care of you. And that can mean a bunch of things. If you’re hanging out with Koreans, an older Korean friend might feel the need to go out of his/her way to drive you home, even if you’re at the opposite end of the city. Having a hard time at work might make your older Korean friends feel the need to take you out to a super relaxing spa. Sometimes being cared for means you’ll be treated out to a meal. Being younger than everyone can be pretty awesome in Korea. But remember, you’re always older than other people too :).


When Age Doesn’t Matter (as much)
– Generally, the closer the age (+/- 1 to 3 years), the less these views hold true. You’ll still be older, but only by a little. Close enough to be chingu :).
– The closer the relationship, the less age matters. If you’re very good friends with a younger/older Korean, a lot of this stuff goes out the window, and you just end up being friends :).
– For business relationships, Koreans may try to be understanding of your culture and be totally cool about the age thing.
– The older you are, the less age matters. A 1 year age difference is huge for a teenager, but doesn’t mean much at all for a senior citizen.

Do you have your own experience with oppa/unnie/hyung/noona? Let us know by writing in the comments!

Keith Kim is a Korean-American who has been living in Korea for almost a decade. Being in a unique position as both a Korean and a non-Korean, he's put all his experience and knowledge for surviving in Korea in Survival Korean . Read it to learn how you can survive in Korea. Follow him on Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram.


  1. Hui W says:

    God I wish I had knew about this website when I first got to Korea…. You explain stuff so much better!
    Keep up the good work! 🙂

  2. Patricia says:

    Are there no words or “titles” if it’s the other way around (you are the oldest)? If I am the oldest in the group, do I not use oppa/unnie? (Or hyung/noona if I am a male?)

  3. Irgendwer says:

    As far as I know you would just say 동생 (Dongsaeng) or simply address them by their name.

  4. Stan says:

    What about if a Korean girls calls an American guy oppa in the United States? Besides meaning they are close, does it mean she is flirting?

  5. Keith says:

    @Hui W – Thanks! Glad you like it!
    @Patricia – just call them by name! 🙂
    @Stan – Not always. really depends on the situation. But she probably feels comfortable 🙂

  6. Andreea says:

    @Stan, dude if you have to ask yourself whether she is flirting or not, you are definitely in the friend zone, so yeah to her you are just friends 🙂 just ask her out yourself

  7. afoodaficionado says:

    Yes, I definitely agree with this article, well written indeed. I am Chinese American and have had alot of Korean and Korean American friends. During the last few years, I have had language partners as I have been learning Korean casually. So I tend to be the nuna/unnie in the group. So I get the respect. I have Korean friends who are adults (not students) who are close and we don’t care about the unnie thing at all just casual/American style.

    Yes, I think Koreans use the Confucian ways more than us (from what I have observed).

    Keep up the great work!

  8. En says:

    When i was in korea, I thought it was really awkward when koreans i met for the first time were asking my name and always my age. That makes sense now! Thanks! Keep writing!

  9. Cassandra says:

    That’s the cutest baby I’ve ever seen.

  10. Esther C says:

    Lol ya my brother has no respect for me even though I freakin 26 an he’s 32 ass Apparently he knows everything

  11. Scott says:

    Also for same age, people say 동갑 which means same age. It’s an important word to know.

  12. Hui Wong says:

    Also does 임마 mean something like “guy” or “kid”? When do Koreans usually use this word? Even guys say it to girls?

  13. Guillaume Brière says:

    oooh, with this definition of oppa…well I think I would prefer to be equal…
    “The closer the relationship, the less age matters. If you’re very good friends with a younger/older Korean, a lot of this stuff goes out the window, and you just end up being friends”
    I like this better, that way my friend will have the “right” to tell me when I do something wrong 😉

  14. Keith says:

    @HuiWong – 임마 means something like “punk” or “rascal.” Sometimes it’s used endearingly for people much older (usually family members like uncles). Girls get it too 🙂

  15. Lexy JR says:

    What are the suffixes I sometimes here in KDramas and reality shows? Like “-Goon” “-Seonbae” and “-Seonsangnim” ?

  16. 승리 says:

    When talking to younger people, isn’t you just 너? 보기: 넌 뭐 먹고 싶어?

    님 is added to the end of titles for positions of leadership. 보기: 선생님, 교수님, 박사님, 목사님, 사장님. (teacher, professor, doctor, pastor, president [of a company]

    Also is 당신 usable or outdated?

  17. Hannah says:

    I’m the oldest out of all the girls in the same grade as me (7th grade) , but nobody even knows i exist. That sucks.

  18. luvely004 says:

    wow..its quite helpful site for learning korean..but I hav a doubt.in drama Heartstrings, the drummer(male ) calls park shyn hye unnie..nd unnie is used by females only..was he wrong or I misunderstood?

  19. Patricia says:

    I prefer to knw your age so that i will knw where i stand.

  20. Kate says:

    I am really happy that I found this page .. it explain a lot of stuff that was confusing for me 😀 whenúif I go to Korea I will know how to act and react 😀 Keep it up

  21. Yosh says:

    This helps a lot for us who are eager to learn Korean language, basics are really important. Thank you Kim..

  22. Darlington says:

    Its awesome really. I live in Nigeria and the first day i heard Noona and Unni, i was like ‘what?!’ that was when i watched ‘ Boys over Flower’, Gun Jun Pyo called his sister Noona and later a girl called that same sister Unni. That really got me confused. Thanks for helping. Besides that, whats the meaning of Sunbae?

  23. Darlington says:

    Also, what is the general language spoken in Korea? Do they speak English? I certainly would’nt want to be stranded when i travel to Korea to play music or something.

  24. I find myself that is certainly among the list of much considerable details in my situation. Using this program . grateful looking at your content. Nevertheless wish to watching with interest on number of common points, It design is fantastic, this articles or blog posts is really good : Deb. Great action, all the best

  25. Anna says:

    I like how you explain it. Thank you so much! Very helpful.
    Can you help me with this:
    What would I call someone in Korean who I am a fan of, a well-known singer or an actor for example, if he is younger than me? Would Oppa be the right word to use?

  26. Hana says:

    HAHAHA “you’ll be getting what Aretha Franklin wanted: R-E-S-P-E-C-T! ” —> priceless line.

    LOVE this post and your blog. 🙂

  27. Hana says:

    I cannot amend or delete my previous comment, so here’s an additional one:

    When I started practicing Korean with my boyfriend, I had the hardest time adjusting to the whole “Oppa” “Jagiya” whatever romantic titles are given to men (and women alike) in relationships between Korean speakers. I just felt … well, awkward to be honest. So, to combat the awkwardness, I turned to humour; calling him Ahjussi heheheh. He hated and still hates it lol (I gather age, as you point out, is a touchy subject among Koreans, especially age-ING!)

    Drew yet another comic to eternalize these awkward moments hehe: http://hanakokanovic.wordpress.com/2013/11/02/just-call-me-oppa-3-ehmmm-yeeeah-right-aw-kw-ard-honorifics-system-in-s-korea/

  28. Tim says:

    hey, great useful website. I’m going to korea for business this weekend, we’re in the same company but how should I address the business manager over there and his employees? They’ll likely be older than me, is it polite to just ask at the first meeting how I should address them?

    Keep up the great work.

  29. luhan says:

    this helps others a lot. I’ve been to Korea a long time, and I met Kai.

  30. Sheep says:

    Do you use these titles before or after their name?

    Taeyeon noona
    Noona Taeyeon

    or just straight call them noona?

  31. jean camille says:

    uhmm, hi i just want to know something coz i hve a friend on facebook he’s indian and i call him oppa bcoz he’s older than me i’m 16 and my friend is 27
    the n

  32. jean camille says:

    hi! i just want to know something bcoz i have a friend on facebook and he’s indian but i called he’s oppa bcoz i just give him respect in korean way bcoz i am a kpop fan specialy to shinee , and he’s 27 and i’m 16 then what my friend should be call to me is it unnie or noona???.. please kindly read my question kamsahamnida . 🙂

  33. Chelsea says:

    So what do older males call younger females?

  34. I discovered Korean dramas through a friend and fell in love. It made me want to learn more about Korean language and culture. I was really struggling to figure out why some people in the dramas called others unnie, oppa, noona, etc. Your blog made that so simple and clear. I didn’t see sunbae mentioned, but from watching shows it seems to me like something you’d call a student in a higher grade? That’s my best guess, and if there’s more to it I’d love to learn.

    Thank you for creating such a well designed and informative blog. Your writing style is SO easy for other Americans to relate to and understand.

  35. Maddi says:

    Does this mean that you can’t date someone older or younger?

  36. Marlyn says:

    Very informative especially to us who loves watching Korean drama.

  37. Ilie says:

    Nice blog & article, still you should work at your menu, it slips out on different resolutions you can use a drop down button if the resolution is under 900px