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

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

– Oppa (오빠) = Older brother (used by females)
– Noona (누나) = Older sister (used by males)
– Hyung (형) = Older brother (used by males)
– Unnie (언니) = Older sister (used by females)
Depending on where you’re from, the saying “age is 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 Korea’s hierarchical respect scale, which is very important in Korea. Once you know where you stand on the totem pole, you’ll know how to act, how to speak and how to listen.

Tip: To first understand this post properly, you’ll have to know your Korean age. Koreans calculate age by birth year (not the actual birthday). 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 very unpleasant person, and the other person hates you. 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 cumbersome honorific language and use casual Korean once they find out they’re the same age as you. 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 Korean culture is heavily influenced by Confucianism (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. That doesn’t mean you’ll be getting 90 degree bows (an ultimate sign of respect) from someone that’s only a few months younger than you. But you’re definitely higher up than the other person, and that generally means your opinions are more respected as you’re older and wiser (at least theoretically). So that means even if you’re 35 years old, jobless and in your mom’s basement for the last 7 years, it wouldn’t be right for your 21 year old tech start-up CEO cousin to give you advice. In Korea, it’s just not her place to tell you how to shape up. (That’s why things can get tricky when a boss is younger than his/her workers.)

 

Being Younger (Dongsaeng)
Being younger doesn’t mean you have to shut up and be quiet, however. Being younger has many perks. Because you’re younger in Korea, many older Koreans will generally feel the need to “take care” of you, which can mean a number of different 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. If you’re having a hard time at work, your older Korean coworker might feel the need to treat you out to a 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, so pay it forward.

 

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. And that means you’ll be close enough to be friends (chingu).
– The closer the relationship, the less age matters. If you’re very good friends with a younger/older Korean, a lot of the hierarchy goes out the window, and you just end up being friends.
– For business relationships, Koreans may try to be understanding of other cultures and will not put so much emphasis on age.
– The older you are, the less age matters. A 1 year age difference is huge for a teenager, but doesn’t mean much for a senior citizen.

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

Keith
Keith
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.

171 Comments

  1. Mik says:

    I like this guy he’s Korean but I’m not. He’s 22 and I’m 14 ( but 15 I think in Korea) Is it okay to date him?

  2. Asma says:

    What would you call your older brothers girlfriend/Fiancé if you were a boy? Noona ?

  3. N.Lee says:

    I’ve met and been talking to this guy daily for the past two months. Today he said that I can be his noona. What does this mean? Haha.

    • Justice says:

      When he said that it means that he thinks of you as his sister – Noona is honorifics for a younger man to call a woman older than him ‘sister’ (no matter how old she/you are – you may be 1 or two years older and he is close enough to you to call you noona. If you’re looking for a closer relationship, you may or may not (you were) friend/sibling zoned

  4. BlueLamp says:

    It means that he’s younger than you. Or it could be that he forgot his honorifics. It really could be either one, if you know his age and you know that he’s younger than you than he should call you noona, but if he’s older than you he calls you dongsaeng and you call him oppa

  5. Valerie Curl says:

    I’m a 71 year old grandmother. If I were to greet a Korean woman of similar age of similar status, how should I formally )to show respect) greet her?

  6. Marceline Willow says:

    If you were a twin but your twin was the opposite sex how would you greet them?

    • Yasmine says:

      Just by their name! You’re considered their 친구 🙂

    • Emma says:

      Koreans tend to switch it, sometimes the younger one will call them by their name and sometimes using Unnie, Oppa, Hyung, or Noona. That depends on which way round the genders are:
      If the younger is boy and older is girl, the younger calls her Noona
      but if the younger is girl and the older is boy then the younger calls him Oppa
      but you can switch depending on your mood. XD

  7. Laure-sana says:

    Hey j’ai pas bien compris comment je fais pour trouver l’âge que j’ai en Corée ? (J’ai 14 ans et ma date de naissance c’est février 2004.) Comment on fait ?
    Mercii

  8. Laure-sana says:

    Hey j’ai pas bien compris comment je fais pour trouver l’âge que j’aurai si je vais en Corée ****
    J’ai 14 ans (février 2004)
    Mercii

  9. Ryry says:

    I Am A Pilipino…

    I like a Korean guy And He is 21 in korean I think But I am 14 years Old In korean😊

    Can we became a couple?

  10. Annelise Palmer says:

    My boyfriend is 31 and I am 22. He always thinks it’s cute/endearing when I call him oppa (he is korean american, I’m just american). I have been trying to learn the language so I converse with his family and friends better, and I practice with him but he isn’t a great teacher. Does anyone have any recommendations on the best ways to learn korean?

    Also- what does one call the parents of one’s spouse? Trying to find a polite term I can call his parents in korean, if there is such a thing. Would I call his sister Noona as well?

  11. Solehah says:

    Hello . I hope your team are doing well . I am Solehah from Malaysia . I viewed your videos on learning korean language in YouTube and I’m interested to explore more on that topic . Recently , I’ve been assigned from my lecturer to explore linguistics phenomenon . So , I’ve chosen korean language as my topic . My topic is specifically regarding korean honorifics .

    I am in need of subject matter expert to complete my assignment . May I ask for your help ? I would like to include your brief explanation regarding the subject matter through video call platform .

    so for example , i will record our discussion in video call , then I will ask you few questions on that video , then I’ll insert (after edited) that video call recording in my video assignment .

    Thank you so much and I hope you will consider . Education for all . ☺️

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