If you’re studying Korean, you probably know this word already. Most dictionaries will tell you that 친구 means ‘friend’. But does it? Well, yes and no.
To understand the word 친구, you must first let go of the notion of ‘friend’ in English, because it doesn’t apply here. I have read and heard so many anecdotes where people got their feelings hurt due to misunderstandings of the word. I remember one where the person got so upset that she ran off crying after being told by a friend that they are in fact not ‘친구’. Incidents like this can be traumatic and discouraging, and understandably so, especially for people who are still learning the language and has yet to find a way to appropriately integrate themselves into the culture.
So what exactly is a ‘친구’? Let’s find out.
This, in my opinion, is the core meaning of the word. The actual meaning of the word may differ as it takes on various layers of cultural and situational contexts, but the core idea at the very heart of the term remains the same – peer. You don’t have to have years of experience living in a Confucian society to understand the concept of a peer – it is, essentially, someone whose social position is similar to yours.
In the case of the Korean society, social position is usually determined by age and seniority. When you’re young, it mostly depends on age. Your classmates at school, and pretty much all the kids in your year, for example, would be your 친구. Two kids meeting for the first time might exclaim in surprise ‘우리 친구네!’ (Hey, we’re 친구!) upon finding out that they’re the same age. They don’t mean, “Hey, we’re friends because we have spent time together and decided we like each other enough to become companions”, which would be ridiculous, since they barely know each other. What they’re saying, basically, is just “Hey, we’re the same age!”
As you grow older, of course, seniority enters the picture as well. Two people who are of the same age, but on different levels in the social hierarchy would not necessarily be 친구. Your supervisor at work, despite being the same age as you, for example, is not your 친구. Your older brother’s wife, who’s the same age as you, is not your 친구, either. That does not mean the relationship is not friendly – it just means that you’re not considered peers in the social hierarchy.
A Friend Who’s the Same Age as You
What do you get when you combine ‘peer’ and ‘friendship’? A friend who’s the same age as you, basically. What do you call friends who are older than you? You call them ‘older brothers’ (형 if you’re a man and 오빠 if you’re a woman) and ‘older sisters’ (누나 if you’re a man and 언니 if you’re a woman), as you would with your biological brothers and sisters. The ones younger than you are your 동생, which roughly translates to ‘younger brothers/sisters’.
I’ve seen people equating the word 친구 with ‘friend’ and concluding that in Korean culture, you cannot be friends with someone who’s not the same age as you, or that the same concept of ‘friendship’ doesn’t really exist there because the title ‘친구’ isn’t always something you get to choose to adopt of your own free will. I think that’s unfair and simply untrue. Of course Korean people make friends – friendship is not a concept unique to Western cultures, the same way concepts of brotherhood and sisterhood are not exclusive to Asian societies. The bond of friendship is universal, but the forms it takes on vary from culture to culture.
In the Korean society, the notion of friendship is interpreted through a more familial lens (as is the case with many Asian cultures) – you only have to look at how they refer to their older and younger friends to know that. In that sense, every friend group is a miniature family of a sort, and as is usually the case with families, every member has their own role to play. But that does not mean they aren’t friends – they aren’t any less affectionate, caring or supportive than English-speaking friends. Friendship is friendship, no matter you call it.
Other Usages of 친구
친구 can mean ‘friend’, but only in a very generic sense. If you were to write an article on making friends, for example, you might title it ‘새 친구 사귀는 법 10가지’ (10 ways to make new friends).
You might also see people using it as a substitute for ‘he’ or ‘she’ when they’re talking about someone younger than them. This is because Koreans don’t really use the pronouns ‘he’ or ‘she’ except in literary writing. Instead, they use the person’s name, their titles if they want to demonstrate respect, or nouns, like ‘that person’ or ‘that kid’ (for someone on extremely familiar terms with them and who are of the same age as them or younger).
Sometimes, none of these terms fit, and the word ‘친구’ is used as a stand-in, if the person in question is younger or roughly around the same age as the speaker. For example, I’m telling my friend about this girl from work, who, according to one of my colleagues, speaks 7 languages. I don’t really know her that well – we’re just acquaintances. So what do I call her?
I can’t really think of a title that I can use – she’s not a superior of mine, and she works in a completely different department. We’re not actually friends, so she’s not an 언니, 동생 or strictly speaking a 친구 (as in a same-age friend) – I don’t even know how old she is, but she seems to be around my age. Using 그 사람 (that person) is a bit odd, since she’s not a complete stranger, and in some contexts 그 사람 can actually take on a slightly negative connotation. I suppose I can just address her by her name, but I don’t feel like going to the trouble of introducing her because all I’m trying to make is a passing remark to my friend on the fact that she speaks 7 languages. In this case, I would settle on just using the word 친구 as a substitute for ‘she’ – ‘그 친구가 7개국어 할 줄 안다고 하더라고요’ (They say she speaks 7 languages).
In a nutshell, 친구 is an extremely flexible term that can take on several different meanings depending on the context – the concept of ‘friend’ as we know it is only one of them. I hope this article helps give you an idea on how to best navigate social situations in Korean and perhaps shed light on past misunderstandings – on why they happened, and how they can be avoided in the future.
I sympathise wholeheartedly with the woman mentioned at the start of this article, because it was truly demoralising situation to be in. When her friend told her they weren’t 친구, what she heard was ‘I’m not your friend’ – it’s not hard to see why she was so upset.
According to her, her friend came to her later, puzzled as to why she was crying. If she had heard the rest of what her friend had had to say, she might have realised that it was just a misunderstanding. What her friend was trying to do was explain to her the real meaning of the word ‘친구’ – that she’s not her 친구 but her 언니, because they’re not the same age. Many English-speaking Koreans, mistakenly thinking that ‘friend’ in English is an actual (or close to actual) equivalent of 친구, might attempt to explain the concept like this: we’re not friends, because in Korea, you can only be friends if you are the same age.
Many English speakers, naturally, find this explanation baffling – even those who have a fair understanding of Confucian societies might find it hard to swallow. That’s because to us, the concept of a friend has nothing to do with one’s social position. A friend is someone we love, respect, trust and care about, whose company we enjoy and cherish. And, perhaps more importantly, they are the people we choose. We choose our friends. It’s not a title conferred on the basis of the rules of social hierarchy.
So when we hear that sort of explanation, our initial reaction is usually a mix of confusion, astonishment and hurt. What do you mean we’re not friends? You mean just because we’re not the same age, we can’t love each other the way two people who care about each other do?
Of course not. And that is why it’s so dangerous to equate the word ‘친구’ with ‘friend’, because they’re not the same thing at all. They can occasionally mean the same thing, but most of the time they don’t. Koreans love and care about their friends, regardless of age, just as we do ours – it’s just that they go by different names. Love is universal across all cultures, even though the manner in which it is expressed may not be.
I hope you found this article helpful. As always, happy learning, and good luck!