Age is just a number...or is it?
You’ve heard the old adage: Age is just a number. Whether you agree or disagree with the statement, in South Korea, that number is of significant importance. Based on Confucianism ideology, age matters. And it matters a lot in most facets of life, including among a group of friends. Unless two people are the same age, they can’t really be friends. Today, we look at the effects of South Korea’s hierarchical culture on friendships.
WE CAN ONLY BE FRIENDS IF…
In S. Korea, the dynamic of friendships is a bit more peculiar than what we are accustomed to in Western countries. The word “friend” (친구; chingu) can only be applied to people that are your age. Even if your circle of friends includes people that are slightly younger or older, you can’t refer to them as “friend” or chingu. This word carries the meaning of being equal but if your social group is made up of mixed ages, this is not the case. The older people in the group have more control of the friendship because their opinions are more valuable. And, as a younger person, you can’t even call an older friend by their name. A title must be attached at the end. Remember? South Korea is all about that R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Unless people were born the same year as you, they will never be your “friends.” So what do you call these older or younger non-friends friends? They get special honorific names according to their age.
IF YOU’RE OLDER…
To display respect, S. Koreans refer to their older friends as older brother/sister. The names vary according by gender. For example, an Oppa (오빠) is an older male to females while a Unnie (언니) is an older female to females. Hyung (형) is an older male to males and Noona (누나) is an older female to males. If you are older than some people in your social circle, even by a few months or just a year, you are Oppa/Unnie/Hyung/Noona to them, but never “friend.” Intriguing right? I still haven’t mastered these names because it’s hard to wrap my mind around the concept. It’s hard to believe that even friendships are so influenced by age.
IF YOU’RE YOUNGER…
You must bow down and follow along! Not really, but sort of. As a youngster, you are a Dongsaeng (동생) or a younger sibling and your job is to show lots of respect. Since the older people in your group will assume the roles of leaders, you must follow along and be okay with it all, or at least pretend to be. Basically, your opinions don’t matter a whole lot while hanging out with your older homies. I even read that some groups tend to be playful with a touch of meanness to their younger counterparts aka teasing, bossing them around and so on. Personally, this doesn’t sound like an ideal hang out scenario to me. But at the same time, because you’re junior, you might be taken care of by the older people in the group i.e. occasionally getting treated to a meal or drinks, etc. After all, you are technically a younger sibling, so while you might be told what to do, you will also be loved and looked after, like any little sister/brother should be.
Because of these rules it’s quite uncommon for S. Koreans to have significantly older or younger friends. I imagine they tend to be friends with people their own age, or close enough, because it’s more comfortable and generally easier as there are no expectations based on age. However, some of my co-teachers told me that even if there is an age gap between people that have had a friendship for a long time, these rules matter less. And in some cases, people decide to be “friends” regardless of age.