Oppas and the art of avoiding pronouns

I have a confession to make. I have increasingly come to appreciate 존댓말. While 반말 can definitely be a sign of genuine closeness (unlike when it’s just granted as a foreigner freebee), it’s also a game changer. And it can be a confusing one at that. Yes, 반말 may be grammatically easy, but Korean is so much more than grammar! For that reason, I’d say that 존댓말 can in some other respects be easier since it’s just more clear cut.

One of the things I’ve encountered in relation to speaking casually is the reply “just call me by my name” when asking how to address someone if we have started out on pretty formal terms and things then slide. It’s happened to me twice in a few months. It was probably well meaning, but I dread this kind of reply because quite frankly it just seems to make it more difficult for me. If you’re younger than me I’ll call you by name to your heart’s content, but I’ve been around enough Koreans to be somewhat uncomfortable calling someone older than me by name if writing or speaking in Korean. I’ll have no qualms if speaking English, but in Korean something just seems to be missing. Which leads us to a whole new “problem” if the other party happens to be male: when to call someone “oppa”.

If you’re not related, childhood friends or something along those lines, both people going casual would imply that guards are lowered by choice, but that doesn’t change the fact there is an age difference and that just calling someone by name in such a situation is not common among Koreans. How about just attaching an oppa (오빠) then?

This is possibly one of the most loaded words in Korean, and one which can be received and perceived very differently depending on who says it, the intonation, and the situation. When speaking formally, opting for name-씨 or some appropriate title is an obvious choice, but how about when speaking casually? This caused a bit of agonising on my part since I didn’t want to jump the gun and call someone oppa only to be met with incredulous silence or even worse: being told not to.

I don’t usually make disclaimers, but a bit of googling will reveal that when and how to use this word is constantly discussed among learners as well as those who are subjected to the endearment. Some people think that it’s a given to use it with pretty much anyone older than you, others think it’s a Koreans-only term, yet others think that it skews the power balance between the man and the woman in question in potentially unfortunate ways regardless of ethnicity. For that reason I’d like to make it clear that this post reflects only my own thoughts based on being around Koreans from time to time, talking to them about language and cultural curiosities, my endeavours to learn the language (I still have a long way to go), and of course some random google searches in the course of the past four years. I’ve never been to Korea (although the tickets have been booked!) so all of my encounters with Koreans have taken place outside Korea. If some Koreans out there think that I’m really off the mark, I’ll stand corrected in the comments, but please do it kindly. Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get to the point.

For those out there who are not too familiar with the word 오빠, who wonder what the whole fuss is about, and want a more thorough explanation, Dramabeans has published an informative post about the different types of 오빠s and why they can be so confusing. In short, though, it is a term used for “a woman’s older brother”, but you’ll find it used in three situations:

  1. It’s what a woman calls her older brother.
  2. It’s something a woman can call an older guy (not born in the same year as her, but up to app. 10 years older) whom she’s feeling somewhat close to, but is not biologically related to.
  3. It’s something a woman can call an older guy (same age criteria as above) that she’s romantically interested in or involved with – but not married to, although some do break this convention and continue to call their significant other 오빠 even after tying the knot.

While the first one is a no-brainer and a situation in which I’ll never find myself, since I’m Danish and my brother doesn’t speak a word of Korean, the distinction between situation two and three is where things can get a little messy even for Koreans, especially if situation 2 escalates to situation 3, or if one party hopes for an escalation and the other clearly does not. Adding a foreigner to the mix doesn’t seem to make it easier.

Some Korean men get thoroughly weirded out if a non-Korean woman calls them 오빠, in which case it’s obviously better to just avoid it all together. But how does one know if that’s the case unless they tell you? If someone tells you “just call me by my name” is it then an acknowledgement of you normally doing that in English/your native language so that might be comfortable for you, or is it a case of “she may be uttering words that definitely sound Korean most of the time and I’ll humour her by replying in Korean, but if that blonde girl calls me 오빠, I will run for the hills no matter what she reads into it”? Or a case of “if I tell her to just call me 오빠, she might misunderstand so let’s not even go there”?

A lot of non-Korean girls out there seem to have a thing for the word 오빠 (especially the potentially romantic connotations), and I’m not surprised that it can make some Korean guys make less than flattering assumptions about a woman’s sanity if she randomly squeals OPPAAA! at every opportunity regardless of which language she’s speaking in that moment and how well she actually knows the recipient.

It seems that one very crucial point, though, seems to be whether or not you know (at least some) Korean. On a similar note, Sofie once revealed to her language partner that I had once dared to call her by first name – in Korean – and he was positively appalled that I didn’t follow proper etiquette by calling her 언니 until he was assured that it was a rookie mistake and that I never did it again.

It’s important to keep in mind that sometimes it’s definitely possible to read to much into it. It really can just be a clear “situation 2” where it has no romantic vibe whatsoever, the other person just happens to be older than you, and you acknowledge a certain closeness to that person. But giving someone that label can also confer certain responsibilities on that person and they will be making assumptions about why you call them that.

For a while I therefore developed an incredible ability to simply avoid pronouns. Yes, I know. It’s the easy way out. In many cases you can get away with that in Korean, but in other situations, it’s just so much easier to use a pronoun (e.g. when returning a question and just attaching a “-는?” rather than repeating the whole thing).

It took more than 3.5 years of learning Korean before calling anyone 오빠. Really. I hadn’t come across a situation where it seemed to be the obvious choice. I wasn’t in Korea, most of those I had spoken to so far were a bit younger than me since they were undergrad exchange students and therefore not in oppa-territory in the first place. I’d not come across any older guys whom I considered close enough to actually be an 오빠, and when I finally got to know someone well enough that they would qualify, I wasn’t entirely sure how it would be received. What can I say, maybe I’m just stingy with the 오빠s. One of my Korean girl friends has even laughed at my “strictness”. I have gotten over it, even if I don’t use it liberally.

After a while I dared to drop a casual 오빠 into a conversation, and when I got a fairly enthusiastic reply, I figured it could be incorporated (sparingly) into my active vocabulary. Also, it obviously doesn’t have to be accompanied by the infamous oppa-pout-wiggle routine that is sometimes expertly performed by some women, but makes a lot of onlookers cringe.

The second time I introduced it by interjecting it after we had been joking about age, and he brought it up himself. When I subsequently sent a Kakaotalk voice message including the word 오빠 followed by a text that he should hurry and listen before I’d regret it recording it, it resulted in a few text replies including “좋아”, “You cannot delete it”, and a surprisingly cutesy happy emoticon. Even so, I didn’t take that as a carte blanche to call him 오빠 all the time.

I might be overthinking some things, and this might very well be one of them. By the length of this post you’ve probably already realised I put quite a bit of thought into this whole thing because I don’t want to mess things up. But it’s made me curious about your approach. How do you decide whom to call 오빠? Or are some of you Koreans who have been called 오빠 by foreigners? Leave a comment with your thoughts 🙂


11 thoughts on “Oppas and the art of avoiding pronouns

  1. nlemus19

    The first time that I met my Korean language partner (who is a few years older than me), I did not know how to address him so he said that “오빠” was fine. I’ve never used this word, nor did I feel comfortable using it, but I did not want to be rude so I called him 오빠. After using it once, I remember that he said “음… 사실 이름을 불러도 괜찮아”. So I took it that he was not very comfortable with me calling him 오빠. I don’t know if the reason was that I am a foreigner, or because it seemed to connote situation #3, but it makes me laugh whenever I think back to it. We’ve known each other for a few months now, and I he hinted once that I could call him 오빠, but I don’t want to make any assumptions hahaha

    1. koreanlearner Post author

      Revoking the 오빠-privilege is even worse! I’d also be all “nope, you changed your mind the first time so surely this can wait a little longer” and pretend to not catch that hint if it were me – depending on how much time you generally spend together of course. How big is the age difference?

      1. koreanlearner Post author

        Nine years is a considerable difference. I agree, it takes some rapport building, which just makes it’s all the more interesting that he didn’t just suggest name-씨 to begin with.

        I was thinking, I think being a foreigner can work both ways; some think it’s weird, others seem to rush things like 반말 because “it’s probably easier”, and they won’t hold you to the same standard as they do with Koreans. After a while they might regret it, but then it just seems odd to ask people to go more formal. From that perspective it might be a good thing that he changed his mind immediately so you at least got to know each other on “normal terms”. But a few months should be enough to get a sense of what’s what 🙂

  2. bora312

    Silent reader here! But I’m glad I’m not the only one that worries about these things! I studied abroad in Japan for 1 year and you know a lot of Chinese and Korean exchange students would be there too. Over the year, I saw that the “Westerners” (4 French people, 2 British, 1 American->that’s me) usually hung out with the Koreans, the Chinese and Taiwanese kind of stayed in their own little clique, and the Japanese students hung out with other Japanese. There were more Korean women than men studying abroad, but there was 1 guy in our little group and I did not know what to call him! He would have been an 오빠 but like you, I wasn’t sure if I was crossing the line by calling him that or something. Even if he told me to call him by his name, I wouldn’t have been able to do that because when he introduced himself to me, his Japanese was too fast for me to catch his name xD The other westerners had the same problem, so to us he just became known as the bowl-shaped haircut guy xD it didn’t help that all the Korean girls called him 오빠 and we didn’t want to seem rude by asking for his name again (we did eventually find out his name though) Anyway, I waited for a half a year before I had the guts to try to call him 오빠. There was a drinking party at our dorm, and I figured if he didn’t like me calling him 오빠 now, he won’t remember cause he’s so drunk, and I’ll never call him that again. But when I did call him 오빠 his face literally lit up (probably partially due to alcohol) and I think it’s okay to call him that. I still use it sparingly or avoid it altogether though.

    1. koreanlearner Post author

      Thanks for commenting! Oh the worry is real, and you’re definitely not alone. “Bowl-shaped haircut guy” hahaha! It reminds me of someone I know who used to be “the guy with the shirts” due to his sometimes rather bold choice of colours. Great strategy, though. It’s a bit funny that it can have such an effect on them.

  3. B. Kim

    Hi. I’m Korean living in Eastern Europe now. I’m writing a Korean vocabulary book for Topik. I can teach you on Skype if you want. It’s free.

    1. koreanlearner Post author

      Hi 🙂 Thanks so much for the offer, but right now I unfortunately don’t have enough time. Please feel free to comment on more posts if you would like to add a Korean perspective 🙂

  4. harang

    For some reason I’ve never liked the word 오빠.I have a few close Korean male friends who are older than me, but I cannot bring myself to call them 오빠 although they’ve mentioned a few times that it’s ok to do so. Blame it either on the cutesy and cringe worthy voice some Korean or even foreign girls use it, or simply because for me it has a romantic connotation and I don’t even want to go there. I master the ability of avoiding using it or sometimes I just call my friends by their names even when we use Korean. I can get away with it because I am a foreigner.

    1. Mai Post author

      Thank you for the comment! 🙂 I hear you. I hate the cutesy version with a passion. The few times I have used it I have tried to actively “un-cutify” it, but even then I think about the fact that I’m using that word so the other person might also be paying attention to it. Maybe it’s not a bad idea to just accept the foreigner card…

  5. Hours and Miles

    This is a really awesome post! I struggle a lot with the line between “trying to speak Korean” and being afraid that I’ll come across like I’m “trying to be a Korean person.” Because so much of the culture and language are tied up together sometimes it’s hard to separate. I don’t use oppa or really have anyone in my life that it would be appropriate to use it with, but I think if someone suggested I call them that I’d probably still be uncomfortable. Great post!


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