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Everything About The Korean Hierarchy System

Korean Hierarchy System. Sounds familiar? Sounds foreign? Well…

Oppa? Noona? You’ve definitely heard those words before. As much as K-Pop fans often misunderstand these words to be used as a part of flirting, well it is technically correct but not entirely lol.

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Oppa, Noona, Hyung and Eonni are part of what you can say the “Hierarchy System” in Korea. These words are used to address someone who is a few years older.

Doesn’t matter if they’re family or not, as long as they’re older and are close to you this is what you’re gonna have to call them!

To break it down :

Oppa – 오빠 (older brother), Eonni – 언니 (older sister) : used by girls

Hyung – 형 (older brother), Noona – 누나 (older sister) : used by boys

This is where the whole honorifics and hierarchy in the language come in! In Korea, if you speak casually to anyone older than you without their permission, oh boy.

You don’t want them to have the impression that you’re rude don’t you?

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Besides oppa or hyung or noona, obviously parents are called eomma and appa. For grandparents, it’s harabeoji and halmeoni.

Eomma (엄마) – Mom

Appa (아빠) – Dad

Harabeoji (할아버지) – Grandpa

Halmeoni (할머니) – Grandma

But, that’s not all!

Did you know that in Korea, there’s a tradition of avoiding using one’s first name if the person is older or if that person is of higher ranking. Because of this, there’s the whole hierarchy chart in offices.

You have the :

Sajangnim (사장님) – CEO, President

Jeonmunim (전무님) – Senior Managing Director

Sangmunim (상무님) – Managing Director

Isanim (이사님) – Director

Bujangnim (부장님) – Manager

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And the list of positions goes on. Call any of these people by their actual names and you’re not gonna have an easy day at work buddy. Just letting you know 😉

This even applies if someone is the same age as you and it’s your first encounter with each other.

For example I meet someone new for the first time and his name is Choi Min Ho. I can’t be like “Min Hoooooo yah!!”. I can’t call him Min Ho straightaway because A. that’s considered rude and B. awkward for him.

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I can call him by his first name if he gives me the permission to, or if our friendship has gotten closer!

Also, the term 친구 (chingu) in Korea is only used for people who are of the same age. You cannot refer another older person your “friend” because to them it just doesn’t make any sense. That, and again it’s kind of rude haha.

Their either your eonni or hyung. Or your boss that you hate. Or your 이모 (imo) – aunt or 삼촌 (samchon) – uncle. Or your 선배 (sunbae) – senior at work or school. That’s it.

So, with the whole oppa, noona and eonni thing. Unlike in the situation where people of the same age can eventually start calling each other by their first names once they get closer, it’s different if we know people who are slightly older than us.

Addressing them ONLY by their first name will already be considered rude and they will definitely take offence to that. That’s why you should use Min Ji noona, Ji Min oppa; for example.

Or maybe even just using their FULL NAME formally like : Park Min Ji ssi (씨) or just Ji Min ssi (씨) is fine. Or just call them sunbae if they’re your seniors. This is because to even call them oppa or noona you need to get their permission first to do so!

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If they still feel like your friendship is not at a certain level of closeness yet, then be prepared to use ssi (씨) or sunbae for awhile at least, until they feel comfortable around you lol! *sad!* :'(

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The Korean language not only has different terms to address the listener but it also has multi-tiered speech levels. There’s the formal way of speaking :

존댓말 – jondaetmal

and the informal way of speaking :

반말 – banmal

The formal way is where you say jeoneun – i (저는) and dangshineun – you (당신은) instead of naneun – i (나는) and neoneun – you (너는). Informal speech is where you do the opposite!

The choice of level for each component is determined by three factors : the relative status between you and whoever you’re speaking to, the degree of intimacy and the situation of where you’re at eg : at work.

If you and your friend of the same age decide that your relationship is close enough then by all means the both of you can speak casually to each other! For a friend who is older than you, usually you can start speaking casually to them once they give you the permission to.

“You can drop the honorifics with me.”

That, people, is the green light that they acknowledge you and feel comfortable enough around you.

For example : A father and daughter have a clear social status difference, but they may use lower level speech to each other because they are conversing in an informal situation.

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This system might sound tricky to acquire, however all Koreans get used to it without much difficulty. Even the kids in kindergarten are aware of the speech levels and use at least one of these two endings in sentences : haeyo (해요) – formal /hae (해) – informal.

Other speech levels are taught at different stages of life, especially when the children go through the school system. There are other ways on ending sentences with the highest and most formal levels, such as habnida (합니다) which is required at work and in military!

Besides that, there are also their customs where the older generation are given the most priority. For example, when you’re out with your colleagues or family for a special lunch or dinner, or just eating out casually; it is always a must that the oldest of the family will start eating first then the rest will follow.

For the company lunch or dinner, it’s always the president or CEO who starts eating first.

It is considered rude if you start your meal before any of them.

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That’s why a lot of foreigners realise once they come to Korea, your age determines your destiny!!! LOL it’s not that serious, but you get what I mean.

That’s why when Koreans meet each other for the first time they always make sure to ask for each other’s age so that they will know how to address one another.

“야!!! 친구야!!! (ya!!! chinguya!!!) – HEY!!! MY FRIEND!!!”

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So, don’t be offended when that happens to you! It may be a culture shock for most people because in most countries, asking for one’s age is considered tactless and rude.

But it’s true when I say it’s one of the ways Koreans are being polite so that they will know how to act around you and how to address you.

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What other facts do you know about Korea’s hierarchy system and what are the ones that you’ve gone through during your visit in Korea? Let me know in the comments below, I’d love to read them!

Also, if you have no idea at all about how to differentiate formal vs informal speech in Korean fear not! Trust me, it’s not as hard.

That’s why here in Penang Korean Class, I offer easy on the go livestream classes and even onsite classes too!

Head over here to find out more now!

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