A Guide to Talking to People in Korea: Age is NOT Just a Number (2023)

Here in the States, age differences aren’t much of an issue. English as a language has no general honorific tense, and age differences between people are largely irrelevant. For example,if you meet a friend’s parents, it’s perfectly okay to address them by their first name. In Korea?

A Guide to Talking to People in Korea: Age is NOT Just a Number (1)

On a serious note though, age structure in Korea(and basically all of Asia for that matter) is a lot stricter than what you might be used to. So what do you need to know? Keep reading!

First of all,there are two forms of speaking korean:반말 and존댓말. (Pronounced “banmal” and “jondaenmal”).반말 is the more informal version of talking to people and is used when you’re talking to someone the same age or younger than you, or someone you’re familiar with(i.e friends and family).존댓말 is used in more polite situations when you’re talking to people older than you, co-workers, strangers, etc. The rule is, if you’re not sure, you’re better off using존댓말.

When you meet people in Korea, they might ask you your age and single/martial status within seconds/minutes of meeting you. While it might be awkward or weird for you, they’re not trying to be rude. In fact, it’s the opposite. People treat others with certain degrees of politeness based on age, andthey’re just making sure they address and interact with you properly.

So, once you’vegathered your respective social positions, how do you translate that in how you speak? Well, there are a couple honorifics that people should use when talking to or about people:

오빠 (“oppa”)

“오빠~, 이거 사 줘”

“사랑해 도진오빠”

오빠 is what a younger girl would call an older guy. Normally, this is after a certain level of closeness or friendship has been developed between the two and when the older guy says, “oh you can call me 오빠”. Note however, that while 오빠 is commonly used in this tense, it’s also used between a younger sister and older brother.

uses: name +오빠 or just오빠.

언니 (“eonni”)


언니 is what a younger girl would call an older girl. Again, this is after a friendship/closeness has been developed between the two, and is also used between a younger sister to an older sister.

uses: name +언니, or just언니.

형 (“hyung”)

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형 is what a younger guy would call an older guy. Just like the previous two terms, it is also used from a younger brother to an older brother.

uses: name +형, or just형

누나 (“noona”)


누나 is what a younger guy would call an older girl. This is also the last one that doubles as a family term and is between a younger brother and older sister.

uses: name +누나, or just누나.

-아/야 (“-ah”,”-yah”)


“사랑해 민서야.”

아 and 야 are attached to someone’s name when they are often the same age or younger than you. It’s used commonly between students, friends, etc, and should only be used if you would talk to that person in반말. 아 is used when the name ends on a vowel, and 야 is used when the name ends on a consonant(a받침). I have to say, there’s really no equivalent to this in English as you could just say, “Jenny, you look so pretty!”. However, in Korean youshouldalways place아/야 after the name when you’re talking to someone who is equal or younger than you.

uses: name ending on a vowel +아, name ending on a consonant +야

-씨 (“sshi”)

“저기요, 배트맨씨!”

씨 is an honorific that is attached to a name. 씨 is used in more formal setting between co-workers, people you just met, strangers, etc. If it’s someone you just met, you’re probably better off with씨 to just be polite, even if the person is a little younger than you. Basically, just use some good ole common sense. If this is someone that you should be more polite towards, use it. Ifyou’re 25 and thisa 10 year old you’re talking to, you might want to rethink the use of씨.

uses: name +씨

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-군 (“gun”)

“민준군이 도착했어요.”

군 is used if you are older(by at least 3-4 years) than a guy and you want to refer to this person in a more formal way to someone else. It should also only be used to refer to guys that are in their late teens to 20s, and max early 30s. Basically, don’t use it on a guy that way too young, or way too old. Since it’s more formal, it’s not really used in everyday conversation, and should be only used in certain formal situations.

uses: name +군

양 (“yang”)

“서현양이 도착했어요.”

양 is largely the same as군, except that it should be used for a girl. Again, since it’s not for everyday conversations, you should be careful for what contexts you use this in.

uses: name +양

님 (“nim”)

“고맙습니다, 고객님.”

님 is even more formal than씨. It’s just an over the top way to refer to someone formally, but it’s more commonly used in titles. For example,선샌(meaning “teacher”)or고객(meaning “customer”).

uses: name +님, or title +님

So, now we’ve learned how to address people that we’ve just met, are friends with, or are family. But how do you address strangers in Korean? In some ways, it’s a lot different from English. Here, if we see someonedrop a wallet, we might say, “Excuse me, I think you dropped your wallet.” However, since the Korean language doesn’t really always include a “you” in sentences, this doesn’t really work in Korean. Instead, Korean people largely rely on titles of people to get their attention. Here a couple of the main ones you’ll probably hear/see:

저기요 (“juh-ghi-yo”)

저기요 isn’t a title, but it’s often used when you want to get the attention of someone(especially a stranger). Going back to the previous example,if you’re telling someone they dropped their wallet, you might start off, “저기요!….” In a way, it’s similar to the English phrase “excuse me”.

학생 (“Hak-saeng”)

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학생 in Korean literally means “student”. More often than not however, it can refer to any school age person, from elementary to university. It’s assumed that if a person is younger, then they’re going to school, and as such people might just address them as “학생, blah blah blah..”. It doesn’t actually matter so much whether or not the person is actually student– the idea is you address people up to this age generally as 학생. Note however, that it’s usually used by little older people that are probablyin their late 20s, or 30s and on. It’s weird to refer to someone who is a student as “학생” if you’re around the same age as them.

선배 (“seonbae”)

If you’re a student, 선배 refers to your upperclassmen. For example, if you were a Freshman in college, a Junior in college would be considered your선배, and when you talk to them, you could just refer to them as “선배, blah, blah blah…”. Keep in mind though that you generally should be using존댓말 with a선배.

후배 (“hubae”)

If you’re a student, 후배 refers to your underclassman. Using the previous example, the Freshman would be the후배 to the Junior. Unlike the other terms included,후배 isn’t really a term that선배’s will generally use as they don’t need to speak formally with titles and can just use the후배’s name.

아가씨 (“Agasshi”)

아가씨 is the term that people will use to refer to a woman that is a young adult: not a student anymore, but not too much older either. As such, it roughly translates to “miss” in English. Traditionally, the world아가씨 refers to a young woman who is not married, and it’s a “safe” word to address people in terms of age-guessing. It implies that the woman is younger, and so if you don’t want to risk offending someone, you should be using아가씨. After all… it’s embarrassing for people to think you’re older than you really are.

아줌마 (“ajhumma”)

아줌마 is the term to refer to a woman that is slightly older/middle aged, or married. In my opinion, it’s one of the hardest terms to use because it can be offensive for people who don’t think they’re old enough to be called an아줌마 yet. Traditionally,아줌마 refers to a married woman, so all married woman should be referred to as아줌마. In practice however, things don’t really go that way. Some people in Korea will only consider a woman an아줌마 if she has kids or is in her late 30s and 40s. There’s really no hard and fast rule for this one, and there seems to be a middle ground of ages from 아가씨 to 아줌마 that is ambiguous. As such, you want to make sure that a person would be called아줌마 before you address them as such.

총각 (“cheon-gak”)

총각 is the male version of the term아가씨. Unlike아가씨 however,총각 has largely fallen out of use in modern Korean, so it’s generally the older generations that use this term. You might hear this term around when talking to a Korean grandma, but otherwise don’t use it– you’ll be dating yourself.


아저씨is basically the male counterpart to아줌마. Unlike아줌마 however, it seems to have a little less of a negative connotationassociated with it. Also note however, that both the terms아줌마 and아저씨 are relative age terms. For example, it would be normal for a 5 or 6 year old to call a 26 year old guy아저씨, because the age gap is so high between the two.


아주머니 is basically the more polite version of아줌마. If you want to refer to someone as아줌마, but don’t know anything about them and are a complete stranger, it’s often better to use the more polite term아주머니. Furthermore, sometimes아줌마 can sound a little rude so it’s better to address people in general as아주머니.


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할머니 literally means “grandma” and is often used in that family context. However, just like아줌마, it can be used to refer to any older person in general, or a senior citizen you might see.


할아버지 is simply the male equivalent of할머니, and is used to mean “grandpa” in a family context. Otherwise, it’s used as a general term for senior citizens.

And that’s it! 🙂

So we’re finally done! 20 terms later you have a basic rundown of how to address people in Korean. So yes, it’s obviously going to be hard keeping track of all of these when you’re learning korean, but hopefully by reading this you can avoid any potentially awkward conversations arising from age-addressing complications. Hope it helps! 😀

Side Notes:

If you guys want to check out some references or links about this topic, here they are!





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Why is age so important in Korea? ›

Social relations based on age in modern-day Korea are a legacy of Confucian teachings that emphasize respect for one's elders. Younger people are expected to show respect to those who are older, according to Robert Fouser, a former professor at Seoul National University.

How do you talk to older people in Korea? ›

안녕 (annyeong) is used when you're speaking with someone of the same age or someone who is younger than you. If you want to greet an older person, you need to use formal language. In this case, you need to say 안녕하세요 (annyeong haseyo) which is a formal greeting in Korean.

How old is 18 in Korean age? ›

3. How to Say Your Age in Korean (Updated in 2023)
Birth YearAgeKorean
200618 years old열여덟 살
200519 years old열아홉 살
200420 years old스무 살
200321 years old스물한 살
86 more rows

How old is 25 in Korean age? ›

Example: if you're 25 in international age, then you're 26 in Korean age. If your birthday hasn't passed this year, your Korean age will be your international age plus 2.

Why do Koreans ask for your age? ›

Though considered impertinent in many cultures, asking someone's age in South Korea is a social contract that establishes the pecking order between speakers.

Is age difference a big deal in Korea? ›

An age gap of 12 years is significant in Korean culture because it means that the couple is a full zodiac cycle apart.

Can a girl say hyung? ›

The Korean word hyung has the same meaning as oppa above. It is also used to address an older brother or male friend. The key difference is that oppa is only used by girls, while hyung is only used by boys.

What is the girl version of oppa? ›

누나 (noona) to address a female friend who is older. Nuna is the opposite of oppa. While oppa is used exclusively by females when addressing older males, nuna is used exclusively by males when addressing older females. You may also see 누나 spelled as “Nuna.” Nuna is used in place of a person's name.

What do Korean guys call their girlfriends? ›

Jagiya (자기야) – “Honey” or “Baby”

Perhaps the most popular of the Korean terms of love between couples, it means “honey”, “darling” or “baby” which you'll often hear among couples in K-dramas. You can also just shorten it to 자기 (jagi). Use this term along with Korean love phrases. It's used for both men and women.

Can I drink in Korea if I'm 18? ›

Alcohol. The legal drinking age in Korea is 19 years of age. Although it is legal to drink alcohol in public, disorderly conduct under the influence of alcohol can result in hefty fines and a visit to the police station.

Is Korean age still a thing? ›

On Thursday, the South Korean parliament passed a law to scrap Korea's two traditional methods of counting age. From June 2023, the so-called "Korean Age" system will no longer be permitted on official documents. Only the standardised, internationally recognised method will remain.

What age is legal in Korean? ›

According to South Korea's Criminal Act Article 305, the age of consent in South Korea is 20 years old. This is one of the oldest ages of consent in the world.

What is the difference between Korean and American age? ›

In Korea, you "age" a year every New Year rather than on your birthday. Regardless of whether your birthday has passed or not, in Korea you add a year to your age every January 1ˢᵗ. That's why, before your birthday in a given year, you add two years to your Western-system age.

Why is the age of consent 20 in South Korea? ›

The rise in the age of consent by South Korea was done as a result of the need to “strengthen the protection of minors, following accusations the existing law on sex crimes was too weak”, hence the country deliberated and decided to increase the age of consent to 20.

How do Japanese count age? ›

Do Japanese add 1 year to their age? It counts birth as one year old, and everyone gets one year older on New Year's Day. This age system has been disappearing from daily life in japan, and these days, people use it only at traditional ceremonies.

Why do Koreans respect their elders so much? ›

Koreans in East Asia have a notable tradition of elder respect rooted in the Confucian teachings of filial piety (Lew, 1996; Choi, 2001; Sung, 2001). The values of Asian filial piety have greatly influenced the way in which Koreans, along with the Chinese and the Japanese, treat their parents and elders.

How do Koreans view aging? ›

In Korean society, age differentiates an individual's roles and responsibilities, and this generates a rigid hierarchy system in family, work, and communities. If you have been in a Korean community, you might have experienced that elders have the authority to make decisions.

What is the 3 date rule Korea? ›

The “three-day rule”

If you're dating in a country other than Korea, you're probably familiar with the “three-day rule.” This rule says that you shouldn't reach out to someone you're newly interested in via text or phone call for at least three days after getting their phone number.

Do Koreans kiss on the first date? ›

In Korea, it's not normal to hold hands or kiss on a first date. A guy may want to hold hands, but kissing on the first date is a big NO. In Korea, it's frowned upon to kiss in public.

What is the average age of marriage in South Korea? ›

The average age of first-time marriage was 31.1 years for women and 33.4 years for men, as of 2021. Compared to the average age of first-time marriage in 1991, 30 years ago -- 24.8 for women and 27.9 for men – women and men now wait 6.3 years and 5.5 years, respectively.

Does noona mean girlfriend? ›

Does noona mean girlfriend? No, it simply refers to an older sister/woman in a friendly tone. Most guys who are or want to be in a relationship with noona don't want to call them noona, unless they want to be cute or ask for a favor.

Is Oppa flirty? ›

Is Oppa a flirty word? Oppa is the Korean word for 'older brother. ' It is used by a younger girl to refer to an older guy. It is also used as a flirtatious way.

What does Shi mean in Korean? ›

씨 (shi) When added to a name, this essentially means Mr./Mrs./Miss. It's the most common and general honorific, and your go-to for someone who you're unfamiliar with but is at a relatively equal social and conversational standing.

Does BTS like being called oppa? ›

He hates being called Oppa (usually used for a boyfriend). People call Jungkook this because once a girl yelled “Jungkook Oppa!” to get his attention. Jungkook dislikes being called Oppa and he prefers to be called “Baby.” And yes, at 70 kgs/154 lbs, he is the heaviest band member.

What is mean by daddy in Korean? ›

아빠 {noun} daddy (also: dad, pa)

How to say pretty girl in Korea? ›

So pretty girl would be “예쁜 여자” and pretty flower would be “예쁜 꽃”.

What do Koreans call their lovers? ›

1. Aein – “Sweetheart” / “Lover” For our first lesson in Korean terms of endearment, aein (“sweetheart” or “lover”) is a pretty great place to start! It happens to be a gender-neutral term too, so you can use it to address men as well as women.

What do Koreans call their wives? ›

“Wife” in Korean is 아내 (“a-nae”). “Husband,” on the other hand, is 남편 (“nam-pyeon”).

What is cute slang in Korean? ›

애교 (aegyo) – “Cute”

애교 (aegyo) is more a way of dressing and speaking than a slang term itself. But it means “lovely” or “cute.” Cuteness in Korean has its own culture, where you speak in aegyo with long drawn out syllables and exaggeratedly cute mannerisms. This is popular among Korean idols especially.

What is the lowest drinking age in the world? ›

The youngest legal drinking age in the world is 15, with both Mali and the Central African Republic allowing folks to drink at that time. Seven countries do not have a government-mandated drinking age, while 11 countries ban the consumption of booze entirely.

Is tap water clean in Korea? ›

While tap water in Korea is 100 percent safe to drink, most Koreans don't drink it unless they boil or filter it, first. When visiting or living in South Korea, you don't have to doctor the water before drinking it. But if you fill up a glass straight from the tap in front of a Korean, be ready for some side-eye.

What country has a drinking age of 13? ›

Around the world, the age when it's legal to purchase or be served most alcohol products varies from 13 in Burkina Faso to 25 in Eritrea.

What countries are you born 1? ›

1. According to one of the world's most unusual age-calculating systems, South Korean babies become 1 on the day of their birth and then get an additional year tacked on when the calendar hits Jan. 1.

Is Korean age being abolished? ›

This traditional method, which will be replaced by the system used elsewhere in the world in June 2023, declares people a year old at birth and adds a year to their age every Jan. 1 — even if they were born just the day before.

Is South Korea making everyone younger? ›

South Korea's parliament passed laws Thursday abolishing the traditional method of determining ages, which will officially make everyone in the country a year or two younger starting in June 2023.

Can a 16 year old date a 22 year old in Korea? ›

The age of consent in Korea is 20, so if you date an 18-year-old at 14 then by the time you're 16 and they're 20… it would be pretty illegal.

What is legal age in America? ›

However, almost all states set the base legal age as 18 years old. This is the age at which a person gains control over their own actions and affairs and becomes responsible for the decisions they make. Those past the age of legal majority are usually tried as adults when charged with crimes.

What is the lowest age of consent in the US? ›

In the majority of states (34), it is 16 years of age. In the remaining states, the age of consent is either 17 or 18 years old (6 and 11 states, respectively).
Sexual Intercourse with Minors
  • Age of consent. ...
  • Minimum age of victim. ...
  • Age differential. ...
  • Minimum age of defendant in order to prosecute.
Dec 14, 2004

Does age matter to Korean? ›

In Korean society, age differentiates an individual's roles and responsibilities, and this generates a rigid hierarchy system in family, work, and communities. If you have been in a Korean community, you might have experienced that elders have the authority to make decisions.

What is the age tradition in Korea? ›

South Korea currently uses three age-counting systems, but most citizens abide by the "Korean age," where a person is 1 year old as soon as they are born, and gain one year on every New Year's Day. And a baby born on Dec. 31 would be considered 2 years old the next day. The change will go into effect this coming June.

Why is the 60th birthday important in Korea? ›

It is technically the 60th birthday, but in Korean age, the person would be celebrating their 61st. The number 60 means accomplishing one big 60-year cycle and starting another one in one's life following the traditional 60-year calendar cycle of the lunar calendar.

What is the age culture in Korea? ›

This is due to the unique age-calculating-system used in Korea. When a Korean baby is born, he or she is already one years old. When the New Year strikes, on January 1st, every Korean turns one year older. That means that a Korean baby born on December 31st will turn two years old the day after, on January 1st.

What is the legal age for marriage in South Korea? ›

Under the Civil Code 2011 the minimum legal age of marriage is 18 years. However, minors can be married with parental consent.

Is there ageism in Korea? ›

In a study on ageism conducted in Australia, experiences of ageism for those aged over 60 showed relationships with stress, depressive, and anxious symptoms [6]. About half of Korean older people were reported to have experienced at least one instance of age discrimination [7].

Is 19 a minor in South Korea? ›

In Korea, the age of majority is 19 (int'l age, not Korean age). You're an adult once you turn 19. In law, this means you can act independently (e.g., enter into contracts w/o parents' consent).

Why 1st birthday is special for Korean? ›

For Koreans, a child's first birthday is a special day, not only because it shows that the child has become 1 year old, but also because the parents hold a special ritual/game to predict the child's future. Children are also dressed up in traditional Korean clothes for the party.

How much money do you give for Korean first birthday? ›

Money are the standard gifting option for almost ever holiday and event in Korea. The standard/average amount is W50,000 but if you're close friends, you'd give a bit more. Don't let this stop you from giving a gift though.

What was the Golden Age of Korea? ›

The work focuses on, but is not limited to,the unified Silla Kingdom period (668–935 CE) usually referred to as Korea's Golden Age.

How do Korean maintain their weight? ›

Koreans follow a well-balanced diet that contains more of veggies and less of processed foods which keeps them in shape without any hassle.


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