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 living in Seoul, Korea. He likes espresso shots, photography art and he loves his Playstation 3. He started seoulistic.com as a hobby site, and is now in the process of turning it into a full-time business. Wish him luck! Check out his blog for an uncensored view on entrepreneurship, dating and life in Korea. Personal Blog: gyopokeith.com Facebook: facebook.com/gyopokeithkim Twitter: @gyopokeith Youtube: "Gyopokeith e-mail me anytime at: gyopokeith [at] gmail.com