February 5, 2020

In this article, we will take a look at how Koreans express “Please” and “Thank you,” and how sincerity and politeness is implied with the tone and body language. I will go over five main points to keep in mind.

1. Koreans do not say the word “Please”

The word 제발 [jebal] literally translates as “please,” but it is not used in the same manner as the English “please.” The word is used when begging or pleading with someone in a desperate situation. In fact, you will not hear any Koreans say the word “please” when making a request.  

English speakers communicate directly and explicitly. Koreans communicate in a manner where there can be many unspoken but implied messages hidden within the spoken words. 

The word “please” is not spoken but implied by the tone and by using the polite or formal form of speech. Speaking in the casual form does not normally imply “please.” Here are some examples using the polite form:

Phrase

Romanization

Literal translation

Actual meaning

들어 오세요

deu-ruh-oh-se-yo

Come in

Please come in

어서 오세요

uh-seo-oh-se-yo

Come quickly

Welcome

수고 하세요

soo-go-ha-se-yo

Work hard

Please continue your good work

말씀 하세요

mal-seum-ha-se-yo

Do speak

Please tell me what I can help you with

계속 하세요

gye-sok-ha-se-yo

Do continue

Please continue

여기 계세요

yeo-gee-gye-se-yo

Stay here

Please stay here

The above are examples of when you are asking someone to do something in general. When you are requesting someone to do something for you, then you would use the phrase “주세요.” It literally translates as “give me,” but it implies “please give me.”

The phrase used with a noun indicates, “please give me (noun).” But if you add another action verb before it, it would mean “please do (verb) for me.”

Here are some examples of both:

Phrase

Romanization

Literal translation

Actual meaning

물 좀 주세요

mul-joem-chu-se-yo

Give me some water

Please give me some water

김치 좀 더 주세요

gim-chee-jeom

deo-chu-se-yo

Give me some more kimchee

Please give me some more kimchee

불고기 일인분 주세요

bul-go-gi 

ee-rin-boon-chu-se-yo

Give me one order of bulgogi

Please give me one order of bulgogi

알려 주세요

ahr-lyu-chu-se-yo

Let me know

Please let me know

말해주세요

mal-hae-chu-se-yo

Tell me

Please tell me

읽어 주세요

chek-il-geo-chu-se-yo

Read me a book

Please read me a book

사랑해 주세요

sa-rang-hae-chu-se-yo

Love me

Please love me

Again, the tone with which you say the above phrases will be the key to imply “please.”

2. Two interchangeable ways to say “thank you” in Korean

Saying “Thank you” in Korean is straightforward and used very much like the English version of “Thank you.” However, there are two different ways to say it, and both can be used interchangeably:

감사합니다

gam-sa-ham-ni-da

고맙습이다

go-map-seum-ni-da

3. Use body language when saying “Thank You” in Korean!

One thing you should be aware of is that you should bow to the person that you are thanking.  How deeply to bow depends on the position of the person in relation to you. 

Just for fun, here’s a diagram to demonstrate what I mean by that:

Position N:  Neutral
Position 1:  Thanking a person casually
Position 2:  Thanking an elder or your boss
Position 3:  Thanking a CEO or someone in a high position
Position 4:  Thanking a king or the leader of a country

Get the idea?

Explained: the Korean custom of bowing to show respect

You should also be aware that the the same bowing rules apply to all greetings, such as “hello,” “good-bye,” “good-morning,” and “good-night.”

It is important to note that In most of the Western cultures, the act of bowing to someone can be looked upon as prostrating or belittling oneself. 

In the Eastern cultures, especially in Korea and Japan, bowing is part of everyday communication and just a way to be polite or respectful to the other person. There is no need to feel like you’re lowering yourself in front of them. 

Most Koreans have lived with this custom all their lives so it is almost a second nature to them. However, it may feel very awkward for someone like yourself who is new to the custom to learn to bow while speaking to people. 

If you’re thanking a friend or someone close to you, you can use more casual forms of Korean speech.

고마워

go-ma-wuh

고마워요

go-ma-wuh-yo

If you are using the casual form of speech with them, the first one is appropriate; and if you are using the polite form of speech with them, the second one is more appropriate. 

As far as the accompanying bow, just a slight nod of the head or an obvious facial expression would be sufficient. Some form of gesture should still be apparent!  

Just remember that body language is, after all, another form of language. And it is an intricate and important part of communicating in Korean. Don’t worry too much, though, because Koreans are very understanding with foreigners making cultural faux pas!

4. What is the proper reply when someone thanks you in Korean?

In English, there are many different ways to reply when being thanked, such as:

You’re welcome.
No problem.
Any time.
Sure thing.
My pleasure.

Korean language also has several different ways to reply:

Phrase

Romanization

Literal translation

Actual meaning

천만에요

chun-man-eh-yo

One thousand, ten thousand times

“You’re welcome any time”

별말씀을요

byeol-mal-seum-eul-yo

You’re speaking star talk

“Non-sense” (no need to thank me)

아니에요

ah-nee-eh-yo

No

“No problem” (no need to thank me)

아닙니다

ah-nim-nee-da

No (formal)

Formal form of above

5. Although there are several ways to say “you’re welcome” in Korean, the most common is to say “yes” or “no.”

Many times in practical situations, you will often hear a simple “yes” or “no” in reply to a “thank you.”

If you reply with a “yes,” it would imply that you accept their thanks; and if you reply with a “no,” it would mean that there is no need to say thanks. You can, of course, use any of the above phrases, but most of the time, you can keep it simple with a polite “yes” or “no.”

Below is an example of a parting greeting between a store clerk and a customer:

(After the transaction is complete)

What is spoken

(with body language)

Translation

What is implied

Customer

감사합니다

(with a slight bow)

Thank you.

Thanking the clerk

Clerk

네… 안녕히 가세요.

(with a slight bow)

Yes… 

Good-bye 

(means go in peace)

Acknowledging the thanks and wishing the customer well as they depart

Customer

네… 수고 하세요.

(with a slight bow)

Yes… 

Please work hard.

Acknowledging the well wishes and encouraging the clerk to keep up the good work

You should notice the implied messages that are polite and well-meaning.

Conclusion

When speaking Korean, how and to whom you say things are just as important as what you say.

Remember that “please” is not spoken but implied in the tone of your request; and saying “thank you” should be accompanied by some sort of a physical gesture like bowing. 

As always, feel free to leave a comment below with any questions or suggestions!

REVIEW AND REPEAT DAILY, AND YOU WILL SEE PROGRESS…  화이팅!!

About the author 

Linda McKenna

Linda was born in Seoul, South Korea, and moved to the U.S. as a teen. She previously taught at a Korean language school. She is a language enthusiast and loves learning about different languages and cultures

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