Tuesday, November 11, 2008

How Dare You Call Me by My Name!

Dear Korean,

I was wondering why when you first meet a Korean, you can't casually call them by their first names. I've become acquainted with this guy on a professional level and we've talked on several occasions, but he has never addressed me by my name – come to think of it, I don't think he's ever asked what it was – even though he's pretty much asked every other question about me. Is it just this weirdo or is this a common Korean code of conduct?

Confused Korean American Chick

Dear CKAC,

The person you are dealing with is certainly not a weirdo. Not calling first name is a common Korean code of conduct, particularly in a professional setting. In fact, doing otherwise is extremely rude.

Confucianism is too often used to explain away Korean culture, and the Korean thinks it is unjustifiably overused. However, at least this much is clear: Confucianism envisions a society with a clear hierarchy. Every individual in the society has a rank, determined by age, family relations, or social status. People’s interaction every day must involve signifiers that remind each person where they stand in the society. Usage of one’s name, as such, is one of the most important signifiers.

In Korean manners, being able to use someone’s first name either meant very close intimacy or extreme superiority. Therefore, relatively few people may call you by your first name. Here is the list of those people: your parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts; your older (but not younger) siblings; your close friends of the same age or older; your owner (if you are a dog, cat, or other pets, or a slave in the old days.) That’s it.

On the other hand, here is the list people who can NEVER call you by your first name: your younger siblings; your children, nephews, nieces; your in-laws, regardless of age; your co-workers, regardless of rank; anyone who is younger than you, regardless of how close they are to you.

How would these people call you? For families and extended families, there is a particular term for each relation. For example, the Korean Brother (younger) has to call the Korean hyeong, the term for “a man's older brother”. (Although he rare does nowadays - the Korean Brother has gotten uppity ever since the Korean Family moved to America.) The Korean Sister-in-Law (older) has to call the Korean doryeonnim, the term for “a woman’s younger brother-in-law.” Yes, it’s that specific – men and women have different terms for each position in the family tree.

For people met through professional acquaintance, the correct term is to use the person’s last name, followed by his rank or profession. Thus, if you are a manager (bujang) whose last name is Kim, you would be called Kim bujang-nim. (nim is an honorific, which makes the whole thing translate to “Manager-Sir/Madam Kim”.) If you are an owner of a store whose last name is Kwon, you would be called Kwon sajang-nim. (sajang means “owner of a business,” so you are being called “Owner-Sir/Madam Kwon”.)

(An aside: unlike U.S., an attorney is a respected profession in Korea. Therefore, a lawyer whose last name is Lee would be called Lee byeonhosa-nim (“Attorney-Sir/Madam Lee”). Among Korean American attorneys, a convenient acronym of BHSN is used in emails. However, what would one do in a Korean law firm to show the rank? After all, everyone in a law firm is a lawyer, but managing partner of the firm has to be differentiated somehow. Answer: at least in the case of the largest law firm in Korea, the managing partner is called “Dr. Kim” (Kim baksa-nim), so that he can be signified as being “higher” than ordinary BHSNs.)

So, here is an important piece of business etiquette in meeting Koreans. Like any other business meeting, people would shake hands and introduce each other’s first and last name, sometimes exchanging business cards. But after that, first names are not to be uttered. This is so important that the Korean will repeat again. Never, never, never, never, never, NEVER use a Korean person’s first name in a business meeting. Dropping your pants and pissing in the person’s briefcase would be only a little ruder than calling him/her by his/her first name. Recount the people in the “okay to use first name” category – they are all family or close friends, except the “dog owner” category. When you just met a person for the first time, you are neither family nor friend. So guess what calling them by their first names mean?

(However, because contemporary Koreans are familiar with Americans’ barbarian habit of calling people by their first names, it may be ok if the Korean businessperson with whom you are meeting explicitly tells you to call him/her by his/her first name.)

Here is a bonus point: the word for “you” follows the same rule as first names. So watch out for whom you call neo or dangsin – in a wrong situation, the word “you” in and of itself could be a swear word. So instead of, for example, saying “I like your idea” in a business meeting, Koreans would say “I like Kim baksa-nim’s idea” (while speaking to Kim baksa-nim, or Dr. Kim, as if they are talking about someone who is not there.)

There is one important group that was not covered – what about husbands and wives? Traditionally, they did not call each other’s names either. Instead, they called each other yeobo, the term that is still in use in modern Korea, translated as “honey” or “sweetie”. However, the etymology of yeobo is definitely not as romantic as "honey"; the term originally means, “look here”. Yup, Koreans knew all about romance.

Another traditional term is dangsin, which simply means "you", although this term is used in more intimate situations. (Almost all "you" in old Korean pop songs are dangsin, while new Korean songs tend to use neo or geudae more often for "you" -- an interesting development.) Alternatively, after having children, husbands and wives often call each other as their children’s father and mother. That is, if a child’s name is Jinyoung (a solid, unisex name), the husband may call his wife Jinyoung umma (Jinyoung’s mom), and the wife may call her husband Jinyoung appa (Jinyoung’s dad). Romance all the way, those Koreans.

However, modern times have a way of changing traditions. So while many husbands and wives still use the old terminology, still others go on a first-name basis. (Because your spouse is your best friend!) Or others retain their terminology while they dated. Thus, (because women tend to be the younger one in a relationship,) many younger wives call their husband seonbae (“class senior”, the term for anyone who went to the same school before you did,) or [first name]-ssi (“Mr. [first name]”, the catch-all term for all other ambiguous situations, often happening during dating scenarios.) Or – horror of all horrors to purists like the Korean himself – some young wives carry on calling their husbands oppa, women’s term for calling older brother or men who are a little older them.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@hotmail.com.


  1. Confused Korean American Chick,

    Do you talk to him in English? If so, what does he call you then? Maybe you two talk in Korean, but it wasn't immediately obvious from the post. I guess that's the only reason there is the problem in the first place.

    Which begs the question, if you talk to him in Korean, then what do you call him?

  2. This new trend of young Korean wives calling their husbands "oppa" must be stopped! It is nauseating and NOT cute at all.

    It makes my skin crawl every time I hear it and strikes me as being creepy in a incestuous sort of way. Please, there must be something that can be done to stop this, old wise Korean.

  3. I don't know if it's normal but it occurred to me that I've never heard anybody say my father's name. I myself never said it. In the rare occasions somebody asks me his name I have to spell it by adding "cha" to the end of each syllable.

  4. Oh yeah, and whatever you do, don't ever ever suggest to your Korean parents or grandparents the idea of naming your kids after them. Idiot that I am, I actually tried this and almost got disowned by my grandmother

  5. I simply call every man I meet "dawg" and every woman "sweetheart." Both flattering and nice ice-breakers, I think.

  6. Interestingly, my very white roommate noticed the "JinYeong Umma" pattern used in Mexican culture(I think?) and found the idea very sexist, because he thought the purpose of the pattern was to disqualify women from having a legitimate name. (ie, women are too low to have a real name much like how slaves were too low to have last names)

    Korean culture dodged the sexist bullet by using the said pattern to both the wives and husbands, but I wonder what the case is in other cultures. Maybe we should Ask a Mexican!

    1. We don't have such a pattern within our culture. As a child, of course you would address your mom and dad as that. But it also depends on your families social standing. For example, the common middle-class family, a child would call their mom "mama", "ama" or "ma". For a dad it would be "papa", "apa" or "pa". When we address our dad's as "apa", it actually sounds exactly the same as how "appa" is pronounced when said in Korean. Now for the upper-class family--they usually take a more formal route. A child would call their mother "madre" and father "padre". As for how a husband and wife call each other--there is no need for any type of formality, no matter which social status you have. They call each other either by their first names or with endearments.

  7. I totally agree with Sandra. What I think is just as lame is seeing/hearing females call their older male FRIENDS oppa too - WTH.

    1. Well this case is different. If you have close guy friends, calling them brother means your relationship is as close as a brother and sister. I have on Korean guy friend who always calls me nuna and we are nice to each other at times, but most of the time we just tease each other like siblings would do.

  8. @calvin,

    the Arabic language also has that pattern. For instance, Abu Omar means (father of Omar) and Umm Omar means (mother of Omar). It implies some level of closeness but it's more polite than the use of first names, just like in Korean.

    Also, I wouldn't say Korea dodged the sexist bullet. There's plenty of sexism in the way husbands and wives talk to each other.

  9. You're right, my roomate was talking about Arabic countries. My apologies to the innocent Mexicans.

  10. I'm going to have to take the contrary position on the use of Oppa. I do think it's cute, actually it's kinda hot. I'm thinking about Korean girls I've dated, but I've never really been bothered when I've heard young married couples do it. It makes them sound young.

    Then again, I like the whole girl-uses-nopimmal-guy-uses-panmal thing too, even though it is sexist. I dunno. I just like it.

    On the other hand, I've called older Korean girls I've seen Nuna on more than one occasion, and I find that entertaining as well.

  11. torm,

    oppa is cute. ofhwa is hot.

    get it right =)

  12. Michele,

    Then what else should a woman call an older male with whom she has a close relationship? 'Oppa' might be pushing it when referring to one's husband or simple acquaintances/coworkers, but why not?

    I agree with torm. 'Oppa' is hot. I kinda wish my girlfriend would call me that more often.

  13. My wife calls me oppa but gets frowned upon by our parents when she does so. I thought it was because they're old(er) but now I see it's universal.

    Funny thing. My wife and my sister hang out a lot and both of them call me oppa. Now all their female friends call me oppa, koreans and non-koreans alike.

  14. Eugene

    Why can't the woman call him by his name? What if a group of good/close friends(mixture of both men and women)go out and one of the women calls out "Oppa." How will anyone know who she is referring to? And if we're saying it's cute that women call their older male peers or lovers "oppa" why don't the men call the women dongseng? I guess I don't ever hear that.

    I like to watch Korean movies online when I have time, and I guess everytime I hear the actresses say "Oppa" it usually is said in a whining/pouting way that makes it sound so annoying.

    And to Calvin, what is "ofhwa?"

  15. How about teachers or professors? Where do they fall in the name-calling hierarchy?

    As for those who think "oppa" is incestuous, consider how strange it must seem for English-learners that "baby" is considered a term of endearment for women. I'm fairly sure most men who use it don't actually have pedophilia on their minds.

  16. ezra,

    no names for teachers either.

    The Korean also thinks "baby" is kinda gross, but that might be just him.

  17. @korean,

    you don't like "baby"? Must be the ultra romantic Koreanness inside you. =)

  18. kimchipowa,

    CKAC here. i talk to him in korean-glish. i either call him mr. (insert last name) or ajusshi (he really hated that!) if i absolutely have to address him. i don't hang around other koreans, so this name protocol is new to me.
    which leads me to re-ask (Michele's) question to (Calvin), what IS ofhwa??

    and Korean,
    dude, you rock for answering my question with your usual wit and exceptional knowledgeability. gamsahamnidah fo shiz.

  19. I've heard some ajumas (not younger ones, but somewhere past 55+ ) call their husbands oppa, so it's really not just young women that do this. maybe the trend has spread more, though?

    some girls do use ______ oppa (his name) if they know them well enough...and especially if there are alot of oppa type friends around.

  20. And this is why I avoid meeting Korean parents that aren't married to causasians in any sort of way. I dread the akwardness and know that I can do nothing but screw up. I love to make good impressions and win peoples' favor, but this is a battle I've learned I cannot win. I'm studying more and slowly figuring things out, but have much more to go before I can speak freely in such environments.

  21. Our (Korean language) teacher showed us a video where the bad guy (wealthy pursuant of the virtuous female lead character) is fellated by another girl and then self-rightously punches her for saying his name.

    And not being able to use you (neo) really sucks, especially when you forgot the person's name.

  22. You get to watch porn in class? That would have made the Korean's Spanish class a lot more interesting...

  23. I agree, Michele, I find Korean girls calling anyone that are NOT their older brother "oppa" so gross. It's along the same line as, say, a woman here in their states calling their lover "daddy" (in the same super whiny and annoying voice, too) Eew. Hmm, maybe I can see why a certain group of men would find that "hot" after all, I guess. . .

    To be fair, it goes both ways. I *hate* being called "uhn-nee" all the damn time. The worst was when I was at work a few years ago and this 45+ year old ajumma came in and was "uhn-nee" this and "uhn-nee that" to me. (I'm 26 yrs old, btw). I was pretty traumatized, to say the least. Like, wtf? *shudder*

  24. A public service annoucement for all Korean men and women out there:

    I will be celebrating my fortieth birthday next month, so please do refrain from calling me 형, 오빠,or 동생. I don't want to be called 형, 오빠 by grown men and women in their mid to late thirties, and I don't want to call any of you 형 or 누나 if you are an old fart above forty.

    If you meet me for the first time at church or any social gathering, do not ask me my age and/or date of birth hoping that you can immediately establish a 형/오빠/동생 relationship with me.

    And if you happen to figure out my age, do not start talking to me in 반말 just because you and I happen to be the same age or you are at least a day older than I.

    This goes double for you 아저씨들 and 아줌마들 in your fifties and sixties. That is why I avoid you like bubonic plague; you tend to be the most ignorant and obnoxious when it comes to age relations.

  25. Dear ITTIA,

    You sound like you got The Twenty Questions Korean-Speaking Yangnomes Always Get a few too many times.

  26. That should have been titled 'Dear IATIT' - I humbly beg your pardon.

  27. cactus,

    Not to be rude, but I honestly don't understand what you're saying. I am not a 양놈, though. I'm a Korean American (a.k.a. 미국 촌놈).

  28. IATIT,

    I used to have to go through the same questions over and over whenever I met new Koreans. From the tone of your message, I thought that you were going through the same, or something quite similar, and were more than a little tired of it. It had really nothing to do with race and everything to do with ceaseless repetition. It got to the point that I'd wanted to have a card ready with the responses listed on them to the questions that would be asked to me, or, for a slightly different flavor, asked about me while I was there. I understand it was part politeness, but I came to a point where I wished I could just be another pretty face in the crowd.

    And, thanks, you weren't rude. However, I have to say, for a chonnom you sport a pretty fancy fedora.

  29. cactus,

    I see what you're saying now. Sorry, my brain only works in power-save mode on Mondays.

    Yes, I have been tired all my life of meeting other Koreans and immediately playing mind games to establish a clear hierarchy —— based on one's sex, age, and education — and labeling one another with 형, 오빠, 동생, or even 후배. That is why my wife and I have stopped attending Korean churches.

    Thanks for the fedora compliment. People say that I look like Al Pacino in the photo. :)

  30. This comment has been removed by the author.

  31. I was really surprised to hear "oppa" used in dating situations. Found it kind of unsettling. Also confusing, because I assumed it meant only familial relationships and then uh, well, clearly it's not. Awkward moments of me putting my foot in my mouth followed. I think "baby" is equally gross and while some find it cute or hot, it's ultimately disrespectful to refer to women in diminutive terms (as many cutsie nicknames do). Also, why put family words in situations involving romance/sex? Ew.

  32. Helllo intresting site..

    As for the "Oppa" part, hmm.. my korean (guy-friend) told me that they like being called "oppa" coz it makes them feel good about themselves. He's like way younger than me, but what the heck, i still call him oppa (but probbly jst him only, and nt the other korean guys, LOL).However we are in Sydney, so i guess most ppl don't care to know..

    Anyways, I am a chinese from Malaysia. And yes, for the chinese, we don't call someone older by their first name unless it was like "Auntie Jane" or "Uncle Charlie". Its considered rude to call someone by their first name, especially if they are much older than us.

    I work as a teacher in childcare in sydney, and i always tell the children to call me "Miss" and not by my first name, which is acceptable by the australian staff I find it disconcerting for a young child to call me by my first name (at least I think it is rude). The least, I would allow younger asian children to call me would be "jeh-jeh" (older sister).

    I think the koreans are used to it.. at least if you watch the korean dramas. So i wont really question it.. the culture is reflected in the language.

    Accept the good parts, but its up to the person who knows the culture to decide how they want to respond to it.

  33. Well, if we are to ban "oppa"... what about "hyung"? o.O That too? I think oppa came to be because of the use of hyung.

    It doesn't seem any bad calling older husbands "oppa". But once it goes to the point to 30+... it's actually very scary. However, in movies and drams, those actors looks so young, oppa seems better than jagi.

  34. I am Korean Australian and I'm still uncomfortable even when I'm speaking English, calling people I've just met by their first names. And I absolutely cannot address adults on first name basis.

  35. I don't understand why a Korean woman/girl calling an older male Korean "oppa" would be considered incestuous or gross. I understand that the English translation of oppa is literally "brother" in a particular context, but if you are Korean yourself, you should know and understand that it is actually a term used to call any older male that you are somewhat close to and/or acquainted with. What else then would you expect a Korean woman to call an older man then?

    Or if you are specifically referring to Korean-American women living in America, calling their Korean-American significant others living in America "oppa" as being incestuous, I would have to say that you need to understand that there is more to the meaning of "oppa" than brother. I really think it's the whole brother-translation that makes it seem off putting...but really it's not. I don't know, I personally don't say it to anyone else except my own blood brother or older cousins...but nauseating, gross and incestuous are a bit harsh. If they wanna call their older male friends/lovers oppa, it's their prerogative, and there really isn't anything wrong or inappropriate about it in the least.

  36. Interestingly enough, here in Pakistan, a shrinking class of old-schoolers do still hesitate to address their spouses by their given name. They are varyingly called "suniyeye" ("listen") or "suntay hain" ( loosely: "are you listening?" ).

    I've only heard a set of very old great grandparents still adhere to this but i believe the norm that time was that calling your husband by HIS given name was taboo. Don't know if its vice versa too.

    After the couple's had children they can be referred to as "---child's name---'s father/mother" so teh parents of Maryam would be called "Maryam ke abba" (Maryam's Father) or "Maryam ki Amma" (Maryam's Mother) by each other.

    Same for older males. It's generally advisable to call older male cousins "Bhai" (brother) and older female cousins "Baji" or "Apa" (Older Sister). If you get married to euther of them, then eww-y but you get the drift.

    Quaint and fun to find similarities in other cultures, but definitely happy that this trend is not persisting any longer.

  37. It is funny Koreans speak about what is rude in Korea, not considering how rude it is to demand foreigners to follow the ackward Korean ways. Well maybe you will learn in troubled times.

    1. Hmm, well I see your point because this all may seem complicated. However, I say this as an American, but have you ever considered how rude it is to expect every other culture to follow or bend to American ways? Even on the internet? For clarity's sake, if someone did something that was seen as EXTREMELY rude in your country wouldn't correct them or at least request that they not do that or say that again? It is important to at least be respectful. In America, formalities are often very loose in non-business settings. If one does something unacceptable, they appolgize and move on. We have a lot of foreigners and I personally accept their culture before my own, but if they did something extremely rude I would point it out. I find leaving out beneficial information rude, but that's just me.

  38. I thought you call your husband in Korean (nampyeon) I have never heard my Korean friends call their husband oppa, I maybe or maybe not be wrong............

  39. Dear Margiman that is an odd statement considering when foreigners come to USA we want them to speak English and do things the way we do here in the USA, When I go to another country I do inform myself of their customs and the way things work in their country is called common courtesy.

  40. I wonder if in the next few generations these formal titles will be phased out of the language. It seems like they're pretty ingrained and I'm not from Korea, but I know in American history it was always Mr. This and Ms. That and saying a person's first name unless you were related or married was taboo. But now it's very lax. My friend's 5-year-old calls me by my first name and I don't find it weird.

  41. In the West, to NOT us a person's name if offensive. It indicates that you have no interest in them or getting to know them at all. This hierarchical snobbery is why I'm very hesitant to visit Korea even though there are many things about the country that impress me.
    Your name is your identity, why are the Koreans so ashamed of it?

  42. Russ, it's like some American families who address their parents by their first names. Some people are okay with it but most, like me, find it a bit rude. As they say, familiarity breeds contempt but new age families do it to try to remove 'authority figures' (that, or a lot of step kids refuse to call their step-parent 'dad' or 'mom'). In the military you wouldn't address a superior officer by their first name. You wouldn't call your teacher or, say the President, by their first name either. You also wouldn't call a judge by his/her first name, you'd say Your Honor while they are presiding. As the Korean mentioned, you can use last name + title/rank combos depending on the difference in rank just like in situations in the US. It's about respect, not shame.

    1. I'm British and have no heritage in other countries but it's like this with us over here
      it's disrespectful to call parents/grandparents by their first names
      uncle and auntie can be called by their first names if it follows 'auntie/uncle' like how I call my mum's brother 'uncle luke'
      step-parents, not so much
      it's odd
      I call my stepdad just 'jez' but I would never dream of calling my mum 'Kasia', it's just disrespectful. My friend calls his dad by his first name and the first time I heard it I was amazed by how disrespectful he was being
      and you should never call a teacher by their first name
      most of the time we don't even know their first name
      it's just mr/miss/mrs {insert last name}

      I personally can't bring myself to use the first name of someone I've just met. I have no idea why because there is nothing like honorifics between friends in england. Just between those of a professional status and some family members
      but I feel wrong doing it. I have a tendency to give my friends nicknames just because I can't bring myself to use their names for several months after meeting them until I become really comfortable with them.

  43. This article is pretty old, i hope someone sees this...I've seen many kdramas in which the characters call other people by their full name almost constantly. Is it a neutral way to adress someone? (In Germany it is only used to formally identify a person or if someone's angry with you)

  44. Thank you so much for this article! I have read so much on how to address somebody in Korean, but this piece is by far the clearest explanation I've come across.

  45. I am curious if there is some leniency to those who are unfamiliar with these code of conducts. For example I have an older male Korean friend who lives in Korea and I live in the US. I often call him by name. I am assuming he realizes I am unfamiliar with these codes of conduct but reading this article make me wonder if I might have offended him by doing so. And out of curiosity what would I call an older male friend?

  46. Americans are not barbaric. America is a Judeo-Christian based culture. In America we see all people as equal and this is enshrined in our constitution. Our manners reflect this. There are many levels of respect as indicated by Unknown above that are in use here most people. There are also areas of the country where Mam and Sir are still used. I really appreciate the Korean culture, but find your comments on America being barbaric extremely offensive. Way more offensive than "dropping your pants and pissing in the person’s briefcase". Otherwise...great article.

  47. Hmmh..From my perspective I would call my Korean boyfriend, close Friend, husband or similar ask how they want to be called. This way they are the most comfortable with it. As for public and work-related situations just adress people according to the politness level

  48. When watching Korean TV dramas such as "Beating Again," and "Heartless City," that female love interests still address the male as "sir." At least that's the way it is translated in the sub titles. I find this very odd. Is it a direct translation?

  49. Is the baby in "My Little Baby" drama, a male?


  51. You still have to give them names, how else would one know who was born when to which parents? Also, what about school and work? lol such insanity.

    In Jamaica, we are pretty much like the UK. Never call our parents by their first names, and many adult children still say mommy and daddy. We only call same aged, near aged and younger peers by first names. If we meet someone for the first time and they only give us their first name, if they look to be in one's age group, then we will address said person by their first name. If not, then we usually ask for the last name so we can say miss/mrs/mr so and so, unless they outright tell us to call them by their first name, and even then it's very awkward if that person is noticeably older. I just think it's good manners, proper manners even and respect. But America drifts farther and farther away from any morals and respect. Even at the workplace in meetings, dropping f-bombs seems to be encouraged. It's disgusting.

  52. Excuse me, I was wondering if calling someone's name and then add -ssi at the end considered rude if that person is not so close to me?


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