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!