There is always a specific etiquette to follow when introducing yourself in any culture and foreign language. Some people place a great deal of importance on this, since first impressions are everything. However, there is a particular value placed on introductions in Korean and it’s essential to understand the nuances.
If you will be traveling to South Korea in the future, then it’s imperative you develop a solid grasp on introducing yourself. This will include learning various levels of speech, honorifics, important phrases, how to present yourself and so many others.
While it isn’t difficult in theory, there are many intricacies and details to know. Certainly, it can get overwhelming and confusing. However, consistent practice will have you memorizing it in no time.
Upon Meeting New People
The first thing you must do when you meet a new person in Korea is to address them by an appropriate speech level along with any necessary honorifics. This is because Koreans value hierarchy and the language used reflects this highly regarded practice.
Therefore, you will speak to people older and younger than you differently as well as those who are friends or your own age. This is what they refer to as levels of speech. However, the addition of honorifics intensifies this social requirement.
Levels of Speech
For elders as well as those of a higher status than you (even if they are younger or your own age), the formal is most appropriate. Almost all sentences using this speech level will end with –ㅂ니다 (b-ewe-nee-dah).
The semi-formal is for your friends, people your own age or those of an equal status. Also known as polite speech, this is the standard and often used in most everyday situations. These sentences usually end in 요 (yoh).
The informal, or casual, speech is for those younger or people who have less seniority than you have. Alternatively, you can also use it with people you know really well and to whom you’re close.
Honorifics are a way Koreans show respect through speech and a display of regarding social hierarchy. Seniority and status are very important to the culture, with the language reflecting this value. The use of titles, pronouns, verbs and nouns will vary depending on the honorific.
These are a way to show others in public how close you are to the person with whom you’re speaking. The more honorifics, the further away the people are from each other. The more informal use of speech indicates they’re close. Ergo, using the wrong greeting and manner of addressing someone is a sign of disrespect and rudeness. So, you want to avoid this at all costs.
This means that when you first meet someone, it’s always good to use standard polite speech until you can get a feel for their position in contrast to yours along with age. Because honorifics are a whole section of the Korean language, we’ll only mention the ones important to know when introducing yourself.
Comparing Honorifics with Levels of Speech
Levels of speech can change and vary depending on the situation you’re in. For instance, you might use formal for speaking in front of a large audience or as a news broadcaster. You can even use various speech levels to refer to yourself depending on the topic in question.
Honorifics are specific in that they display cognizant respect toward the listener or the person about whom you’re speaking. Oftentimes, it will be a requirement when speaking to someone clearly older than you are or who has a higher social status. Unlike speech levels, you cannot use honorifics to speak about yourself.
Patience & Observation
Don’t worry, if you’re going to South Korea and you accidentally say something wrong, most Koreans are very forgiving. However, make a concerted effort never to do it again& especially with the same people.
The best way to observe introductions is to watch K-dramas. While everything else in these soap operas is outlandish and something out of fantasy, their social interactions are right on point.
About the Pronunciations
With many of the words, phrases and sentences laid out below, there is a phonetic pronunciation spelled out. These are not the official transliteration from Hangeul. While the Romanization is helpful, it doesn’t always ring true to actual annunciation.
Therefore, understand these are mere approximations to help English speakers say the words in their rightful context. If you do not find them helpful, you have all the encouragement to supplant your own.
Saying, “Hello” in Korean
Once you see someone face-to-face, you want to start by saying, “hello,” as you would in any language. The following chart details how to say this according to the appropriate speech level. The semi-formal version is the standard.
You can use the informal version to address people you know well or are close to as a way of saying “hi.” If an elder or other such higher up addresses you with the informal, they are being subtly disrespectful. This isn’t always the case, but, sometimes it can be& it will rely on the other words they use toward you after it.
Bowing & Shaking Hands
Once you say hello for the first time, bow at the hips toward them with your left hand on your stomach. Every time you see them afterwards, a head nod will do. That is of course, the person you’re speaking to is older or of a higher status. Then, you bow every time.
Remember, first you say, “hello,” then bow and finally you shake hands. You won’t always shake hands, but, when you do, you use your right hand. Only use the left if you intend to shake with both hands, where the left hand sits on the wrist, elbow or arm of the right. Other than that, leave your left hand out.
This is because the left hand has associations with death and negativity. Older people and those in formal settings could become very offended if you offer a handshake with your left.
After initial pleasantries, you should offer your name or you may hear someone ask what your name is. It looks like this: 이름이 뭐에요. You pronounce it eel-euhm-ee mwoo-eye-oh. Then, you have two ways in which to answer:
|My name is _______.||제 이름은 _______ 입니다||Zhe ee-reuhm-euhn _______ eem-nee-dah.|
|I’m (or I am) _______.||저는 _______ 이에요/ 예요||Zhay-oh _______ ee-ay-oh/yay-oh|
In the second sentence, notice the backslash. There is a difference in what you use depending on if your name uses a consonant for a vowel. A consonant requires 이에요 whereas a vowel uses 예요. This is because of a grammar rule that says no name in Korean can end in a consonant.
To illustrate, names like David, John, Doug, Jennifer, Lauren and Abigail will use 이에요. The other ending, 예요, is for names such as Anna, Jeanine, Laci, Alexei, Constantine or Mostafa.
Saying “Nice to Meet You”
Once you say hello to someone in Korea, much like in the West, you’ll say something along the lines of “nice to meet you.” It’s polite, courteous and shows a genuine interest in the person to whom you’re speaking. In Korean, it’s the exact same thing in principle and concept, but there are two ways of saying it. They are as follows:
|Formal||처음 뵙겠습니다||Cheo-euhm boop-get-seuhm-nee-dah|
|Formal||만나서 반갑습니다||Man-nah-say-oh bang-ah-pseuhm-nee-dah|
|Semi-Formal||만나서 반가워요||Man-nah-say-oh bang-ah-woe-yoh|
|Informal||만나서 반가워||Man-nah-say-oh bang-ah-woe|
Mentioning Your Age
At some point during the introduction, the person you’re speaking to may ask you what age you are. While in the West we consider it a little rude to ask someone’s age, it’s not this way in Korea. They simply want to gauge where you fit in their hierarchy. It usually looks and sounds like:
몇 살이에요? (myeo-ch sal-ee-eye-yoh?)
몇 살이세요? (myeo-ch sal-ee-say-yoh?)
The Korean number system is too long to get into here. Therefore, you should study it to get your precise age and how you use it in a sentence. But, for the sake of example, let’s say you’re 35 years old. You will respond with:
- Formal: 제 나이는 서른 다섯입니다 (pronounced chay nigh-een-euhn say-oh-leuhn thah-say-oh-sh-eeb-nee-dah)
- Semi-Formal: 저 는 서른 다섯 살이야 (pronounced chay-oh neuhn say-oh-leuhn thah-say-oh sh-al-ee-yah)
Your Home Country
Naturally, Koreans are going to notice that you’re not from around that part of the world. So, they will probably ask you where you come from or what you home nation is. They’ll ask you this in one of three ways:
|Formal||어디에서 왔습니까?||Oh-dee-eh-say-oh wah-seuhb-nee-kah|
|Semi-Formal||어디에서 왔어요?||Oh-dee-eh-say-oh wah-say-oh|
|Honorific||어디에서 오셨어요?||Oh-dee-eh-say-oh ooh-show-say-oh|
You will answer with the formal 저는_____ 에서 왔습니다 (pronounced zho-neuhn _____~eseo wah-tseuhm-nee-dah) or the semi-formal 나는 _____ 에서 왔어요 (pronounced nah-neuhn _____eseo wah-soh-yoh).
If you’re from the United States:
- Formal: 저는 미국에서 왔습니다 (pronounced zho-neuhn mee-gkou-g-eseo wah-tseuhm-nee-dah)
- Semi-formal: 나는 미국에서 왔어요 (pronounced nah-neuhn mee-gkou-g-eseo wah-soh-yoh)
However, you could be from another country. While there are grammatical rules for changes, you simply replace the blank with the country name in Korean. The small list below illustrates some of them:
- Australia: 호주 (ho-choo)
- Brazil: 브라질 (beuh-lah-zeel)
- Canada: 캐나다 (kay-nah-dah)
- Egypt: 이집트 (ee-jeep-teuh)
- France: 프랑스 (peuh-lahng-seuh)
- Germany: 독일 (dog-eel)
- Great Britain: 대 브리튼 섬 (die beuh-leet-euhn say-ohm)
- Greece: 그리스 (geuh-lee-seuh)
- Ireland: 아일랜드 (ay-lend-euh)
- Mexico: 멕시코 (mek-see-koh)
- Norway: 노르웨이 (nole-deuh-way)
- Russia: 러시아 (low-see-yah)
- Scotland: 스코틀랜드 (seuh-koh-tell-an-deuh)
- Sweden: 스웨덴 (seuh-way-den)
In some introductions, you’ll want to tell the person what you do as a job or career. You will use either:
- Formal: 저는 _____ 입니다 (cheo-neuhn _____~m nee-dah)
- Semi-Formal: 저는 _____ 에요 (cheo-neuhn _____ ~eye-oh)
You simply fill in the blank with the appropriate occupation:
- Actor: 배우 (bay-oh)
- Artist: 아티스트 (ah-tees-euh-teuh)
- Athlete: 운동 선수 (oon-dong sey-ohn-soo)
- Banker: 은행가 (euh-nhayng-gah)
- Barista: 바리 스타 (baree seuhta)
- Bartender: 바텐더 (bah-ten-doh)
- Broadcaster: 방송인 (bahng-sohng-een)
- Dancer: 춤추는 사람 (choum-chou-neuhn sah-lahm)
- Editor: 편집자 (peeone-cheeb-jah)
- Skin Esthetician: 피부미용사 (pee-boum-ee-yong-sah)
- Farmer: 농장주 (nong-chahng-choo)
- Hairdresser: 이발사 (ee-bahl-sah)
- Janitor: 관리인 (gwan-lien)
- Journalist: 기자 (gkee-jah)
- Musician: 음악가 (euhm-ah-gkah)
- Programmer: 프로그램 제작자 (peuh-low-geul-ehm jay-jahg-zah)
- Singer: 가수 (gkah-soo)
- Student: 학생 (hahg-sayng)
- Teacher: 선생님 (sohn-sayng-eem)
- Veterinarian: 수의사 (soo-wee-sah)
- Waiter: 웨이터 (way-teuh)
- Writer: 작가 (chah-gkah)
Certainly, someone may ask you about your likes and hobbies. These usually come from people you’re friends with or have some sort of closer relation, so we’ll give only the semi-formal version.
Usually they’ll ask you, “what is your hobby?” 당신의 취미는 무엇입니까? (dahng-shin-oowee chweemee-neuhn moo-ohs ee-bean-ee-kah?)
You can answer with statement such as:
|My hobby is _____.||제 취미는 _____ 예요/이에요||Zhe chweem-een-euhn-_____-eye-yoh|
|_____ is one of my hobbies.||_____ 는 제 취미 중 하나예요||_____-neuhn zhe chweemee zhung hahnahay-yoh|
As with occupation and country, fill in the blank with your preferred hobby:
- Bicycling: 자전거 타는 것 (zha-cheong-ayo tahn-neuhn gkohs)
- Bird Watching: 야조 관찰 (yah-cho gwan-chayl)
- Bowling: 볼링 (bou-ling)
- Climbing or Hiking: 등산 (deuhng-sahn)
- Cooking: 요리 (yoh-lee)
- Crafting: 공예 (goung-yay)
- Dancing: 댄스 (den-seuh)
- Gardening: 원예 (whoa-n-yay)
- Golfing: 골프 (goal-peuh)
- Listening to Music: 음악을 듣고 (euhm-agk-eul deuhd-gkho)
- Meditating: 명상(mee-yong-sang)
- Painting: 그림 (geuh-leem)
- Playing Video Games: 비디오 게임하기 (bid-ee-oh gaym-hah-gee)
- Reading: 독서 (toke-soh)
- Running: 달리기 (tahl-lee-gee)
- Sculpting: 조각 (cho-gahg)
- Singing: 명음 (mee-yong-euhm)
- Traveling: 여행 (yoh-hang)
- Walking: 걷는 (kohd-neuhn)
- Watching Movies: 영화 감상 (yong-wah kam-sahng)
- Writing: 글쓰기(geuhl-seuh-gee)
Other Topics of Conversation
As you continue speaking with people, they’ll become curious about how you learned Korean or where you live now, among other such questions. Likewise, you’ll also want to know about them, so keep the questions in mind along with the answers.
- Where did you learn Korean? 한국어는 어디서 배웠어? (hangk-oog-eoh-neuhn ayo-dees-ay-oh bay-whoa-ssoh)
- Who taught you Korean? 누가 한국어를 가르쳐 줬어? (noo-gkah hang-oog-oh-leuhl gahl-euhch-yay-oh chwahss-oh?)
- I learned Korean at school. 나는 학교에서 한국어를 배웠다 (nahn-neuhn hahgk-gkoh-say-oh hang-oog-oh-leuhl baywoss-dah)
- I learned Korean from a friend. 나는 친구에게 한국어를 배웠다 (nahn-neuhn cheen-kuay-gay hang-oog-oh-leuhl bay-whoa-ss-dah)
- I studied Korean with a friend. 나는 친구와 한국어를 공부했다 (nahn-neuhn cheen-kuay hang-oog-oh-leuhl gong-boo-hay-ss-dah)
- I studied Korean in college. 나는 대학에서 한국어를 공부했다 (nahn-neuhn day-hahg-esayoh hang-oog-oh-leuhl gong-boo-hay-ss-dah)
- I studied Korean on my own. 나는 한국어를 독학으로 공부했다 (nahn-euhn hang-oog-oh-leuhl doag-hahg-euhl-owe gong-boo-hay-ss-dah)
Your Current Home
- Where do you live? 어디 살아요? (oh-dee sal-aye-oh)
- I live in Seoul. 나는 서울에 산다 (nahn-euhn sohl-eh sahn-dah)
- I live down the street. 나는 길 아래에 산다 (nahn-euhn keel ah-lay-ah sahn-dah)
- I live in Busan. 나는 부산에 산다 (nahn-euhn boo-sahn-eh sahn-dah)
- I live in Chicago. 나는 시카고에 산다 (nahn-euhn shee-cah-goh-eh sahn-dah)
- I live a few miles north. 나는 북쪽으로 몇 마일 떨어진 곳에 산다 (nahn-euhn boogk-chok-euh-low mee-och mah-eel tay-ohl-ohcheen gohs-eh sahn-dah)
- Are you married? 결혼하셨나요? (gyohl-hone-hah-shyohs-nigh-oh)
- Yes, I’ve been married for a decade. 예, 저는 결혼한 지 십 년이 되었습니다. (yeh, cheo-neuhn gyol-hone-han chee seeb neon-ee doh-ee-ohs-euhb-nee-dah)
- Yes, I’m a newlywed. 네 저는 신혼입니다 (ne, cheo-neuhn seen-hone-eeb-nee-dah)
- No, I’m single. 아니, 난 하나입니다 (anee, nahn hah-nahb-nee-dah)
- No, I’m divorced. 아니요, 이혼했어요 (anee-yoh, ee-hone-hay-ss-oh-yo)
Children? Yes or No
- Do you have children? 자녀 있어요 (chan-yoh ees-oh-yo)
- Yes, I’m pregnant with my first child. 예, 첫 아이를 임신했습니다 (ye, cheos aye-leuhl eem-seen-hay-sseuhb-nee-dah)
- Yes, I have three children. 예, 저는 세 자녀가 있습니다 (ye, chonen she chan-yoh-gkah eeseuhb-nee-dah)
- No, I have no children. 아니요, 저는 자녀가 없습니다 (anee-yoh, cheonen chan-yogah ohbs-seuhb-nee-dah)
Pets? Yes or No
- Do you have any pets? 당신은 어떤 애완 동물을해야합니까? (dang-seen-euhn oh-tayohn aye-wahn dong-moul-euhl-hay-yah-hahb-nee-kah)
- Yes I have a cat. 네 저는 고양이가 있어요 (ne chonen goyang-eekah ees-oh-yo)
- Yes, I have a dog. 네 저는 개가 있어요 (ne chonen gay-gah ees-oh-yo)
- Yes, I have some fish. 네, 물고기가 좀 있어요 (ne, moul-gkogk-eegah chom ees-oh-yo)
- Yes, I have two birds. 그래 나에게는 두 마리의 새가 있다 (geuhl-aye nah-egg-en-en doo mah-lee-wee say-gah ees-dah)
- No, I don’t have a pet. 아니요, 저는 애완동물이 없습니다 (anee-yoh, chonen aye-wahn-dong-moul-ee ohbs-seuhb-nee-dah)
Addressing Other People
Of course, when you have a conversation with someone, you aren’t only going to talk about yourself. You’ll want to be able to address other people and ask them similar questions. Here is where speech levels and honorifics truly come into play.
First, you’ll never address someone as “you” or by their first name, especially upon first meeting. You will always employ the appropriate honorific to address an individual based on their age and social position.
However, honorifics are a huge topic that includes verbs and nouns. Newcomers should begin learning these from the start. But, for the sake of this discussion, you address them by their family role, company title or you add a suffix to their name or title. The titles below are the most common:
|Male’s Elder Brother||형||Hyong||형님||Hyong-neem|
|Male’s Elder Sister||누나||Noo-nah||누님||Noo-neem|
|Female’s Elder Brother||오빠||Ohp-pah||오라버니||Oh-rah-boh-nee|
|Female’s Elder Sister||언니||Ohn-nee||언니||Ohn-nee|
|President or CEO||사장님||Sah-chang-neem|
|Department Deputy Head||차장님||Cha-jahng-neem|
There are several characters added at the end of names and titles to indicate additional honorifics if not already attached to the person when addressing them. You simply add them at the end of any name or word such as “driver” or “doorman” and etc.
|Mr. or Mrs.||님||-neem|
|For people of equal rank||씨||-ssee|
|Higher on social hierarchy||선배님||-sohn-bay-neem|
|For those who are younger||후배님||-hoo-bay-neem|
|For those close and younger or lower on the social hierarchy||지민아 / 지수야||-chee-meena / -chee-soo-yah|
For the last example above, the difference will depend on the presence of a consonant or a vowel. If the name has a vowel, you will use 수야 (soo-yah). When a consonant is at the end of their name, you will use 민아 (meena).
While each section here has its own grammatical rules, this is the basic overview of how to introduce yourself in Korean. Therefore, it’s imperative you familiarize yourself with as many nouns, verbs and numbers as you can to be able to speak accurately about yourself.
Also, always remember there’s a formal, semi-formal and, sometimes, informal way to speak to someone based on their age and social seniority. However, using the semi-formal will be the most common in your dealings with the public and meeting new people.