Conversations With Koreans: Wait, we aren’t friends?

“Thank you”, “Hello”, “Give me… please” and a few other words and phrases are among a handful of words that foreigners just in Korea learn and among them is often the word chingu (친구), translated loosely as “friend”.

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Foreigners splice this word into their English sentences without hesitation and use it seemingly without understanding exactly what it means. This is probably one of my least favorite words in Korean and I’ll explain why.Wait, we aren't friends?

Some years ago, I was taking Korean lessons four days a week for four hours each day. I was devouring as much as I could of the language because I was dating a Korean man, most of my friends were Korean and of course I was living in Korea and I wanted to make life just a bit easier. Before taking the classes, I was hesitant and weary of what I perceived as forced respect within the rules of the language, parts of the language that force me to show a respect that I may not have for someone. Just because people are older doesn’t mean they always deserve respect and at that point I’d been in enough situations to know that quite a few, usually, men just assumed that I should be respectful of them even though they disrespected me in numerous ways. Through the classes, I learned how to show my disapproval  when being disrespected without being downright rude and I learned how to be more assertive in Korean. One of the biggest lessons I learned, however, was that I have almost no “friends” in Korea. (From here on out “friend” in parenthesis will be the Korean form of friend while a freestanding friend will be the English version.)

My husband, boyfriend at the time, and I decided to have a get together at our house and invited our close Korean friends. There were about 10 of us around the table and I was the only foreigner in the place. At this point, I’d known my boyfriend and all of his friends for a good four or five years and in my native tongue, I would call them my friends. After the food was finished and the plates picked up, I thought a game would be fun. Taking what I’d learned from class on how to call someone by name, I said, “So-yung-a, do you want to play a game?” (소영아, 게임 하고싶어?) using the lower form of the language. I had been gaining confidence with the language and using it whenever I could. There was an audible gasp and after a few seconds of silence, So-yung said, “yes,” but two of the more aggressively conservative members of the group told me I couldn’t say “So-yung-a” to So-yung.

Me: Why not?

Friend 1: So-yung is older than you are.

Me: So…

Friend 2: You can’t say “So-yung-a” because you’re younger than she is.

Me: We’re friends though.

Friend 1: No, you’re not friends with So-yung.

Me: What do you mean? I’ve known her for years. I have her phone number in my phone. I see her a lot. We are friends and my book says that is an appropriate ending for a friend.

Friend 2: No, you can’t be friends because she is older than you are.

Me: I don’t understand what you’re saying.

Friend 1: You can only be friends with someone that is the same age as yourself.

Me: Well, that doesn’t make any sense. You are all my friends and you are all older than I am.

Friend 1: We aren’t your friends.


What do you mean we can't be friends because you're older?After that I went to my room for a little cry mostly because I was just told I had no friends and also because the language they were using to express their viewpoint was very aggressive and I don’t handle aggressive situations very well. Coming from a teaching viewpoint, aggressively attacking a student for using a word or a term inappropriately almost never makes the student respond in a positive way. Usually, the student will become more timid to use the language or try to use words in the future unless they’re completely sure of their meaning. I also reminded my “friends” later that I don’t attack them when they misuse a word, if it’s extremely rude, I remind myself that it’s not their first language and I try to help them understand why it could be taken the wrong way. My “friends” however, were not so patient with my language acquisition. Though I had excitingly read through my lesson books and went through discussions in my class, I had taken some things and words in the book for granted not realizing they didn’t mean what I had assumed they meant. Two of the more tolerant members of our group came in to calm me and explain in nicer terms what everyone had gotten so upset about.

For starters, when you call someone in Korea by name, you almost never say just their name. There is always a title attached to the ending. Koreans allow foreigners to use just a name without any ending because they know we’re coming from the West where that is acceptable, but in Korea, technically, you end a name with some title. For example, So-yung would be called So-yung-si. “-Si” is the title attached to her name when it’s being called out. If she has a more specific title, like manager or teacher, then that title would be switched in, though then her last name would be used instead of her first as in my example. If you’re “friends” with someone instead of saying the more formal “-si” you can attach “-a” to a name ending with a consonant or “-ya” to a name ending with a vowel. The book explained, “it is used in talking to someone who is junior to the speaker, or to someone who is on familiar terms with the speaker.” I made the assumption that familiar terms encompassed So-yung and I who had known each other for years and were very familiar with each other. It did not.

The next assumption I made was that “friend”, a word I had heard over and over and had used from my very first year in Korea, meant what it means in English. It does not. Chingu is only used with people of the same age in Korean. You can be friendly with older people or younger people, but you will never be their friend. Instead of using the term friend for older or younger people, Koreans use terms like older brother (형/ 오빠) and younger brother (동생). This was a bit more difficult for me to grasp and to be honest I still haven’t. No matter how much of the language or customs I learn, I will still be from the West and there will still be some things that I can’t give up and don’t want to. The idea that I can be friends with people young and old is one of those ideas, I also find it difficult to call people brother and sister when they aren’t. After this situation, I had discussions with my husbands friends, who are all older than I am by almost a decade, and asked each one of them what would make them more comfortable. Could I use the lower form of the language with them? Knowing I wasn’t coming from a place of disrespect but from a place of familiarity and closeness many of them said the lower form was just fine. I am more aware of the language discrepancy now however, and when we are out with mixed company, friends and people I don’t know yet, I will usually use the polite form with my friends because I know the unfamiliars may not understand where I’m coming from and may find me disrespectful.

I have had to remind Korean friends and acquaintances that though I’m speaking Korean, I’m still coming from a western mindset and so some of the things that I say easily or openly may not be what Koreans would normally say, but I think that should be expected. Often it seems when I switch into Korean, listeners seem to assume I also take on a Korean mentality, though I do not. Now, whenever I hear a foreigner splice the word chingu into their sentence, I cringe thinking they have no idea what they’re saying and wondering when they will end up in the same awkward predicament I did when I realized I have no Korean “friends”.

How many Korean “friends” do you have? Are you trying to learn Korean? It 90 Day Koreancan be difficult, can’t it? Check out 90 Day Korean for some great FREE resources as well as awesome courses and instruction by people that know what they’re doing.

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Conversations with Koreans: Wait we aren't friends?

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23 Responses

  1. Nina says:

    I always found this really interesting and it depends on the person you are talking to as well. my ex`s best friends wife and i communicated in english mostly but i called her by first name or 언니 when i spoke korean. It is definitely a learning curve and something I don`t quite embrace 100% a friend is a friend whether they are younger or older. i do find that those who speak english better or have spent time in foreign countries can classify friends differently based on experience abroad. though when speakimg english one might say this is my friend in korean they will address the person differently. at this point i have no friends the same age haha. but in my book they are friends and that is all that matters. really loved this entry and how it shows how language and culture shape how we speak.

  2. That must have been a really difficult evening.
    I happen to be minimum 1 year older than all of my Korean language partners and their Korean classmates since I’m doing my second MSc (I’m 25) while they are abroad for their BSc exhange. I’d like to think we’ve at least grown close “in spite of” the age difference. Of course I know some of them better than others. Maybe it’s easier when I’m the older one and not so harsh when it comes to enforcing politeness and we’re in my home country rather than Korea?
    However, I’ve noticed that while most of my female language partners have at one time or another called me 언니 when switching to Korean, *none* of the guys have *ever* called me 누나. Occasionally I’ve felt like I had to fulfill the part of “the 언니” although I’m not entirely sure what it requires… Do my ramblings make sense?
    As for Western friends most of them are a few years older than me and some are even about a decade older. That has never made me feel uncomfortable in their company.

  3. Tell me about it… I have been in that situation many times and I agree they tend to be less understanding (aggressive even, as you’ve called it) when we mess up the polite/informal reference to people. I’ve even gotten the reaction, isn’t it the same in English, to which I just stare blankly in response. Where can I start!

    • Hallie says:

      After teaching English for so long here, I do have to say that we definitely have formal and informal English as well. They often don’t learn formal speaking here though. They learn conversational ESL which they assume is adequate for all circumstances, though it is not. Many of my students tend to think we don’t have a difference between formal and informal because of this. I have to explain that the lines are just a bit more blurry. We don’t use it based on rules of age, it’s more circumstantial I think. I think it’s harder in a way because it’s not a straight and fast rule like they have. But yes, I agree with you. Where to start!

      • Exactly, my sentiments as well! Yes, close to all the Koreans I know assume there is no polite speech in English, so they tend to speak and write rather rudely, thinking that it’s all acceptable (and it sometimes borders on offensive), but thing is, without “formalized” formal speech rules in English, it’s rather tough to tell (educate) them otherwise.

        • Hallie says:

          I agree. Oh the intricacies of English. I tend to tell my students, if nothing else, add “please” to the sentence and no matter what at least you won’t seem like you’re trying to be rude on purpose. I’ve had 40 year olds come to a table and tell me to “move” when they meant for me to move down the bench so they could join our table and of course my gut reaction was to look at them, furl my eyebrows and say, “excuse you?” and then there are the students that say, “come here!” Both sentences would be helped with a little “please” at the very least. ^^

          • That’s a great tip! All too often, the easier English words (e.g., “move”) are more difficult for them to “master” than the bombastic words they learn for the TOEIC. As a result, some sentences can come across as stiff and unfriendly.

  4. Anni says:

    Thanks for your article.
    I was just confuse and doubt about my new relationship with a korean guy.
    We had really good and happy conversation, he texted me everyday. telling me how was his day and everything happen to him daily.
    He has very poor english and I know him try to learn and study hard to improve his english to make our conversation work.
    But in the conversation, he is calling me “friend”.
    I would like to know if a korean guy will call you friend (even i am younger than him about 8 years.)
    Is that mean just friend? means we have no chance to have further relationship?
    Is that he want to make me clear that we are just friend. nothing else.


    • Hallie says:

      If he is texting you every day, that’s a good sign that’s a bit more than friendship. If he’s saying “friend” in English then he probably knows what it means in English and that it can be for anyone of any age. When it’s spoken in Korean, then the meaning is different. I can’t tell what he wants though as far as a further relationship. Maybe you should just ask him…?

      • Anni says:

        Hi Hallie,

        Thanks for the advice.
        That’s really a few times I wanted to ask on his though. But I did considered that we just knew each other only for few months. And I know most of the Korean guy will disappear or lost contact, not even given any reason.
        I don’t want to pushing him and let him feel stress. Anyway, if he really do feel only “friend”like what he is calling me.. we just maintain our friendship. It’s all about fate.
        Sometimes I tried to bring the topic to know about his view on relationship like married and dating.. but he always not answer it and try to bring out of the topic.

        • Hallie says:

          In my experience, Koreans are pretty forward about being in a relationship so if he’s not answering the question that might be the answer already. It’s always good to have friends though. ^^

          • Anni says:

            Thank You for your reply. Yes. I think not bad if just friend rather than nothing. 🙂

          • Anni says:

            I got the answer finally… friend means friend though~ he got a new girlfriend recently. I am feeling little depressed. But he is still texting me everyday. For him, maybe I am just a person who can help him to learn English. I am not dare to ask more about his girlfriend. Not sure Is korean or foreigner. I should sing Let it go~~ let it go~to myself.

          • Hallie says:

            Aw, sorry Anni. There’s plenty of fish in the sea as they say. I met my husband when I wasn’t even looking. That of course is just the way isn’t it? Good luck out there in that dating world.

          • Anni says:

            Thanks Hallie.
            Do concentrate on my work now 🙂
            I got my answer anyway~~ as you said maybe the fate pump into me when i am not looking.
            Thank you and nice to know you. =)

  5. jtrav says:

    As an Asian guy I can confirm that it’s almost impossible for you to become friends with older people. At least not in the western sense of friends. If I were Soyung, I would be very offended too. No matter how close you are to her, the -si is always needed.

    • Hallie says:

      Soyung wasn’t offended, it was other more conservative less open to western ideas people that were. She knew that I was just learning Korean and as a friend, western definition, she knew I wasn’t trying to be offensive. The problem, though, lies in books and other educational materials translating chingu as friend when it is in fact not at all what the proper translation is. Then when a book proceeds to explain that you say -a and -ya at the end of names to people you’re familiar with apparently not accounting for how familiar you can be with people of younger or older ages is furthering the issue.

  6. christian ray says:

    wow! thanks for this article.. its a great help for me. i’m planning to go to seoul, south korea soon.. i’m excited to learn more of their culture.

    • Hallie says:

      Thank you for the comment! I’m glad you find it helpful and have a great trip when you’re here in Korea. ^^

  7. Cc says:

    Your article is really insightful and thank you for that 🙂 I’ve been learning Korean for six months and have already found some good Korean friends on social apps. I’ve even hung out with some of them during their visit to my country. (I live in South East Asia). These Koreans I’ve met so far are very open-minded and friendly but I also notice that they really care about the hierarchy. (which isn’t much of a problem for me as I also have a somewhat asian background). But I still have to be careful not to make my friends feel offended when they’re with me. One of my Korean guy friends, who is one year older than me, asked me to call him just by his name when we first met and when I added Sshi to his name, he said I didn’t have to use it as we weren’t at work and that Sshi sounded too distant. When I found out about our age difference, (In my culture, we also call people brother or sister according to the age differences just like in Korea) I started to call him oppa but he said it’s okay just to use his name. But one day, I called him ‘chingu’ while we were texting and he said that he’d be a brother (all of a sudden) and I feel awkward to start calling him oppa again after using just his name for some time now. I’m not really sure if he’s implying he wants me to use the title “oppa” from now on. I don’t wanna offend him. So, I just call him “bro” in English. hehe I know that sounds awkward as we almost always chat in Korean when we text on kakao 😀 Am I being rude..? Thanks a lot 🙂

    P.S Sorry for my English if there’s any mistake 🙂

    • Hallie says:

      Your English is great! I would say that he probably told you not to use “oppa” when you first met because you had just met. Using “oppa” means you’re close to someone. It’s not something that you just start using as soon as you meet someone and find out that they’re older than you. You’re definitely not “chingus” and can’t be in Korea, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be close so perhaps now he means that you’re closer so you may call him “oppa”. If you’re uncomfortable with it, I would just use his name though and I’m sure he wouldn’t be offended by that. I personally prefer to use names because my culture doesn’t use brother and sister terms to people that aren’t in our family/related/adopted, etc. Because you’re a foreigner though, Koreans would understand if you stuck with the names over other familial titles. And because more and more foreigners are learning Korean, it is acceptable (from you as a foreigner) to just use the name without the -si at the end as well. Again, this is something that is being adapted to the Korean language due to more foreigners and our lack of titles in this manner. Actually, he may have been trying to make you comfortable by telling you to use just his name at first as well. Great that you’re learning a new language though! Keep it up!

      • ncnc says:

        The exact same things happened to me too. My korean guy friend also asked me to call him just by his name and not put Sshi to his name (when I tried to) when we first met(in my country; south east asia). We did hang out a few more times and had so much fun as friends. Then after when he got back to Korea again, he suddenly said he’d be a brother.. Like 형제 (he didn’t exactly say like “call me oppa” though but is it the same?). Anyway, I became so used to calling him by his name that I found it awkward to start using the new title suddenly. So, i also started calling him Bro in english ㅋㅋㅋ but after a while, i gave up that weird “bro” cuz i usually text him in Korean and now, I just use his name. He doesn’t seem to mind and it’s a relief hehe

  8. Doug says:

    I don’t see this Korean language/mindset as just culturally “different”. I think it’s negative. I grew up in Korea for 16 years and have lived in US for 10 years.
    What I concluded so far is that in Korean language, not being able to say “you” to older people or using two different forms of grammar to older and younger (존댓말&반말) really conditions people to treat everyone differently just by their age. I’m not against treating people differently in general because it’s functional/beneficial that our voice tone/behavior can vary towards your professor vs. towards a newbie trainee. However, exercising authority over someone just because he/she is younger despite the persons’ character and maturity is just detrimental to Korean society.

What do you think?