You’re running late… again.
When you finally arrive, you decide to lighten the mood and surprise her by coming up to her from behind and cupping her eyes, teasingly asking “Guess who?”… and poking her in the eye, instead.
In moments like this, you’ll be very glad to know how to properly say sorry in Korean.
Here’s another potential scenario:
Yesterday, your Korean boss gave a C-level presentation with a PowerPoint Presentation you picked from thin air. You were so hungover from the night before and were in such a hurry that you made a mess of things. You practically got everything wrong.
Like his name.
You got the fiscal year wrong, some decimals and commas on the numbers got misplaced and, by the end of the presentation, you made it look like the company has been underwater for years and negated all the hard work done by everyone in the company.
So today, you have the honor of being called to your boss’ office. (I’m guessing a promotion isn’t on the plate.)
An apology is definitely in order.
In case you haven’t caught on yet, saying “Sorry!” in Korean will be the crux of this post.
And you’d better do it right or you’ll be out of a job and a romantic partner very soon. And nobody will be the least bit sorry for you.
So, let’s grovel away, then?
Apology Accepted: How to Say Sorry in Korean
The 2 Main Ways to Say “Sorry” in Korean
By this time, you already know that there are levels of politeness in Korean. There’s the formal or extra polite language that you use for elders, and there’s a casual tone that’s the language of close friends.
There are two main stems for apologizing in Korean, as well.
One is 미안 (mi-ahn), and the other is 죄송 (joe-song). They both mean “Sorry,” though the latter is considered more formal.
Let’s look at each, and some of their variations, in closer detail.
Variations: 미안, 미안해, 미안해요, 미안합니다
You can simply say 미안. But it wouldn’t mean much.
It’s the most informal way of apologizing in Korean. It’s not that serious and has almost a playful tone to it, sometimes even accompanied by a smirk. You use this when addressing children or people younger than you, and when the boo-boo you’ve made is really not that serious. Almost a token apology, I’d say.
You simply add 해 (hae) to the 미안 stem.
We’re still in the casual territory with 미안해. You use it when saying sorry to your friends. So it’s probably the most common apology thrown around.
Also, this is often the apology used in boyfriend-girlfriend relationships. Although in the scenario, you’ve created above, your “Sorry” might be more acceptable when accompanied by romantic gestures of “reparations” like flowers and chocolates, etc. (I mean, you did poke her eye.)
You simply add 해요 (hae-yo) to the 미안 stem.
With 미안해요, we’re now entering the formal category. The tone is more serious. You use 미안해요 for people who are a little bit older than you and people who rank higher than you at work or in society.
Finally, when you add 합니다 (ham-ni-da) to 미안, you have 미안합니다, which is the most formal form of apology of the 미안 stem.
If you want, you can add 정말 (jeong-mal) at the beginning of the phase and end up with 정말 미안합니다 (jeong-mal mi-ah-nam-ni-da). 정말 is the Korean equivalent of the English word “very” or “truly.” Adding it serves as an intensifier and will let the aggrieved party know that you’re truly sorry for the hurt feelings you’ve caused.
Okay, let’s move on to the second stem.
Variations: 죄송해요, 죄송합니다
With 죄송, we’re getting even more formal with the apology.
죄송해요 is also used with elders—like when you’re apologizing to parents or grandparents and people who are clearly above you in age, rank, or social standing. Your boss, in the scenario above, should at least get this apology.
죄송합니다 is a very formal way of saying “Sorry.” You know that when you see endings like 합니다, it means the situation requires polite and formal language.
You use 죄송합니다 to apologize to people you don’t know. Let’s say in your rush to get to the coffee shop where your girlfriend’s been waiting for two hours, you bump into somebody in the street. You say, 죄송합니다.
So for a Korean beginner, you’d most probably need this one in your arsenal.
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Korean Phrases to Express That You’re Sorry
제 잘못이에요. (Je jal-mo-si-e-yo.) — It’s my fault.
This statement is a humble admission of fault or mistake, so you can add it to bolster your apology.
Take note that in Korea, you say “Sorry” only when you’ve actually made a mistake and have caused harm or hurt. It’s essentially an admission of fault. Meaning, the mistake is attributable to you.
In the West, the word “Sorry” has more varied uses. For example, “Sorry” can be used to express how sad or sorrowful you are at some unfortunate turn of events—even when you clearly have nothing to do with it.
Let’s say a friend failed to make the football team. Somebody from the West would say, “Dude, that sucks. I’m really sorry to hear that.”
This doesn’t happen in Korea. You do not use the word “sorry” because it’s not your fault he didn’t make the team. So you don’t use 미안해 or 미안해요.
In the situation of your friend not making the football team, you can say 안타깝네요 (an-ta-kkam-ne-yo) instead. It means you’re sad to hear about it… but not “sorry.”
다시는 안 그럴게. (Da-si-neun an geu-reol-ge.) — I won’t do it again.
Not doing it again is, of course, the highest proof that you really are sorry for what you’ve done. It proves to the other party that you’re seriously repentant of your offense.
Since saying “Sorry” doesn’t happen in a vacuum, when apologizing, there are associated gestures, facial expressions and tones that you should do to show remorse.
Bowing when asking for forgiveness is expected, especially when addressing elders, strangers, and those above you. Bowing is deeply rooted in Korean culture, and they bow to show respect, gratitude, and regret. Waist bowing at a 45-degree angle is standard.
But, just as you have to calibrate your apology to the degree of offense, level of regret and the relationship you have with the aggrieved party, the bow is calibrated as well. The thing to remember is that the worse the offense and the deeper your remorse, the lower you bow and the longer you stay down.
Big bows of apology, like when Korean public officials or public personalities kneel in front of the cameras to show remorse for an offense, don’t happen every day. (Although Korean dramas make it look like they happen every week.)
When asking for forgiveness to people your age, those younger than you, your girlfriend or your circle of friends, overt acts of formality are not required. A slight tilt of the head and delivering your 미안해 in a somber tone are enough.
제발 화내지 마세요. (Je-bal hwa-nae-ji ma-se-yo.) — Please don’t be mad at me.
Anyone who’s learning about a whole new culture is likely to commit a social faux pas that could require an apology. In that case, you’ll need to use this apology.
Different cultures have different ways of doing things and you may inadvertently cause a little scene just because you don’t know better. For example, an important part of Korean etiquette is that elders set the pace of family events. In a dining situation, for example, the oldest person gets to take the first bite which signals others to start eating. You scarfing down your food before grandma gets to her own is not a nice picture.
Koreans are generally understanding of foreigners’ social booboos, but you should definitely have your 죄송합니다 ready just in case.
How to Respond When Someone Says “Sorry” to You
On the rare occasion that you find yourself on the opposite side of the equation, and somebody has hurt you, forgiveness is the best attitude forward.
You can say things like the following phrases:
당신을 용서합니다. (Dang-si-neul yong-seo-ham-ni-da) — I forgive you.
Say this in somber tones and with a sparkling tear in your eye for full effect. Show the other person that even though you’re still hurt, you’re willing to be the bigger person and move past the offense.
사과를 받아들일게. (Sa-gwa-leul ba-da-deu-lil-ge.) — Apology accepted.
If you’re the miffed girlfriend, Visa and Master Card also accepted.
아니에요, 괜찮습니다. (A-ni-e-yo, gwaen-chan-seum-ni-da.) — It’s okay, never mind.
Say this to the other person when you want to play it cool (even though you are, for instance, literally bleeding). It quickly absolves the other party of the offense and refuses to take the mistake too seriously. People make mistakes and you’d want others to forgive you on days you make yours.
Now you know how to say sorry in Korean. This isn’t a license to do things you’ll need to apologize for, but it’s a good skill to have in case you need it.
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