Conversations With Koreans: When Maybe Doesn’t Mean Maybe Anymore

Korean Language: MaybeMy first year in Korea, a new Korean friend asked me if I wanted to do something on the weekend. Not wanting to say “no” outright but knowing that I had a Korean lesson and probably would have plans afterward with my roommate I said “maybe”.

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To me, in English, ‘maybe’ generally implies that you don’t want to or are not inclined to want or do something.

It’s a polite way to refuse so that you don’t have to explicitly say ‘no’. I was surprised when the weekend arrived and at 6:00pm I received a phone call from said friend asking where I was because she was waiting for me at the subway station.

Me: Oh! What? Where are you? I said maybe, I didn’t know we made plans for sure.

Her: You said maybe. Didn’t that mean you were going to come?

Me: Um… is that what it meant to you? Well, I’m nearby with some friends, would you like to join us?

Her: Yes!

Was it all a plan to tag along? I doubt it. A simple case of ‘maybe’, or amado (아마도), confusion. At the time, I simply deduced from the situation that she hadn’t quite learned what ‘maybe’ meant and perhaps in the future I needed to be more open and honest with my feelings. Those first two years other situations with managers would sprout up where they asked me if I could do more work and I would say “maybe” hoping that we could come back to the topic later after I looked at my schedule to see if it were possible or not, though I felt strongly there would not be time. I would then find the extra work left on my desk. After nine years, now looking back on that and many other situations where I used ‘maybe’ which eventually turned into the Korean amado or 아마도, which should have the same meaning because it’s translated so, again and again I was thrust into situations that I did NOT want to be in. Why were people so confused with my polite refusals to do things? When I’m shifting my weight, not answering positively and following it up with a ‘maybe’, how is that hard to understand?Korean Language: Maybe

Maybe is one of those words that loses its meaning, or the subtlety of the word, in translation. While most English speakers will use ‘maybe’ to mean ‘possibly but most likely no’, Koreans will generally use ‘maybe’ to mean ‘yes’. Such a simple and completely opposite usage of this oft used word causes many confusions in daily life. Learning a language can be difficult but adding the subtle differences in meaning which aren’t put into a dictionary but just learned over time makes it all the more complex.Korean Language: Maybe

I think this leads to a bigger point though: Koreans often say that Americans are extremely brazen with showing their feelings. Perhaps we are, but I would point out that perhaps one reason for overly showcasing feelings is in order to get straight to the point. While Koreans will try to maintain their subtle language structures even with foreigners and even in English, I think Americans tend to move past the subtleties of our language once we see it’s not working and shoot straight for an understanding. At least, that’s what I did. My Korean friends and managers are often telling me that they appreciate my matter-of-fact and simple replies. Do they really? Or, are they trying to tell me I’m too honest in the subtle way that Koreans do? I’d venture it’s partly both, but for me I find it much more efficient to say “yes” or “no” rather than trying to politely refuse in a subtle way that has been disproved to work for me numerous times.

What do you think? Is it better to hold on to the subtleties in either English or Korean if it’s clear you’re not getting your point across? Or, is it better to talk in more black and white terms if it makes the conversation move along faster and more efficiently?

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Conversations With Koreans: When Maybe Doesn't Mean Maybe; Maybe has a whole new meaning when you start learning Korean. What does it mean to you?

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3 Responses

  1. cat says:

    I think most Koreans mistranslated the word ‘maybe’. For Americans, Maybe is a word to refuse in a polite way which means it’s less than 10% chance of doing it. however, Koreans normally refuse in a different way. like ‘when we are free both’, ‘later’ or ‘someday’ in korean.. I guess that’s why they didn’t catch up. just like you don’t get exactly what koreans say, so do they. that’s really subtle. anyways so interesting

    • Hallie says:

      Yeah, there are a lot of subtle things within our languages that it’s difficult to pick up on. It’s even difficult to explain sometimes.

  2. Helena says:

    I’ve had this come up. A friend was trying to clarify whether I thought she had said something, and I said “아마.” So she asked, “아마 했어요, 아마 안했어요?” and I said, “Maybe you did, maybe you didn’t. I don’t know!” So we had a discussion about what “maybe” means. After that we occasionally used probability percentages.

What do you think?