Essential Korean Titles: What Hoobae (후배) Means and How to Use it


Essential Korean Titles Hoobae (후배) Explained by a Korean

Want to know what it’s like to be someone’s hoobae in South Korea? Not sure how to treat hoobae at work and school?

You’re in luck, I’ve been in both situations!

I’ll go over its meaning and give you cultural context here.

Find out how to use hoobae and the pros and cons of having one.

Let’s get started!

You might have heard “sunbae” or “hoobae” a lot in K-dramas or among K-pop idols.

Age doesn’t always determine whether you call someone sunbae or hoobae. You can be older than a person and be hoobae, or younger and be sunbae. I’ll explain why below.

Hubae vs. Hoobae

“Hubae” is the correct spelling according to romanization rules, while “hoobae” looks more like it sounds.

Both are fine, but you’ll usually see people using “hoobae”.

What does hoobae mean in Korean?

Hoobae (후배 in hangul) is a title for someone in a lower grade at the same school, or someone who started their career (industries like entertainment, medicine or law) or job after you did at the same company.

Like the word dongsaeng, Koreans rarely call someone hoobae directly. It’s for introducing or mentioning someone to a third person!

The most common situations when you use hoobae are:

Hoobae at School, College/University

Once you enter university, you’re hoobae to pretty much everyone with a higher hakbeon.

Some of your sunbae will use “hoobae-nim” at first to be respectful, but most will end up calling you by “your NAME”.

By the beginning of sophomore year, everyone gets excited to be sunbae and greet freshmen as their hoobae. It’s a rite of passage that means you’re growing up.

Hidden Culture: Naerisarang (내리사랑)

Naerisarang means “descending love”. Think of it as love that goes downstream or paying it forward based on age. And yes, Koreans love this concept and tend to live by it.

An example of naerisarang is when sunbae buys a meal for hoobae (of course, hoobae buys coffee for sunbae to be polite), hoobae then buys a meal for their hoobae in the future.

Another illustration is, I grew up receiving lots of love from my emo, and I repay that by being nice to my cousins (her kids).

Hoobae at Work

Anyone who joined your company after you is hoobae.

Just like at school, you don’t directly address someone as hoobae. Instead, you can call them by “NAME ssi” or “NAME nim” depending on the company culture.

If they have a title (직함), you can simply say “NAME + position” like “Lee Ju-im”.

Similar words are:

  • Hoo-im (후임): Junior who’s appointed later, taking on the duty of a predecessor or seon-im.
  • Shin-ip (신입): New employee or newcomer who’s usually fresh out of college.

Hoobae in K-pop

Regardless of age, whoever debuted later is hoobae on the K-pop scene.

Aespa are hoobae to TWICE, and BTS are hoobae to EXO.

Hoobae are expected to show some Ye-ui (예의 or courtesy). In general, hoobae idol groups visit the waiting rooms of sunbae groups to “say hi” (인사드리다 including bowing 90 degrees and introducing themselves) at music shows (음방 or eum-bang).

What are the pros and cons of hoobae?

Pros

Hoobae are like dongsaeng you’ve never had. Hoobae kind of have to be nice to you, so it’s easy to maintain a good relationship as long as both sunbae and hoobae are on the same page.

Being hoobae can be really fun because some sunbae are just like nice unnie, oppa, noona or hyung. You can enjoy free meals, drinks and get helpful advice regarding campus life or your career.

Cons

Having hoobae can be expensive. It’s payback time for all the free meals you enjoyed as someone else’s hoobae. Some hoobae can lack sense or be rude. (Koreans call it “개념없다” or “gae-nyum-eop-da”, which literally means having no concept of anything.) This means they don’t show the expected courtesy towards sunbae. It’s a subtle dance that you’re not expected to fully understand.

Lingua Asia_Sahoesaenghwal as hoobae
Example of sahoesaenghwal as hoobae smiling on the surface but annoyed on the inside

Being hoobae might be stressful as you need to ingratiate yourself with some horrible sunbae.
(Koreans call it “사회생활” or “sahoesaenghwal”, which literally means social life, but really means how to get by in the world.)

For example, I had a toxic sunbae at one company who took credit for my work and blamed me for her mistakes. At another job, one sunbae tried to give me English lessons while pronouncing words like Coke as “cock”, much to the delight of the guests.

It’s best to be polite, even when they’re clearly wrong, while distancing yourself as much as possible. They often think this behavior is normal since it was done to them, and there’s no actual bad intention.

How to make hoobae honorific?

The honorific suffix “-nim” is the most common way to make a word honorific in Korean.

In this case, you can simply add “nim” and say “hoobae-nim (후배님)”.

However, this is not frequently used since hoobae is considered a lower position in Korean society.

 

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FAQ

What is underclassmen in the Korean language?

Underclassmen at school are technically hoobae (후배), but you eventually start calling them by name, once you become familiar with each other. At the office, you call juniors by their name and title to be polite.

Did we miss anything?

Let us know your thoughts or questions on hoobae in the comments!

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2 thoughts on “Essential Korean Titles: What Hoobae (후배) Means and How to Use it”

  1. Hello,
    I’m not very tech savvy so my apologies for making an inquiry here(I of course appreciate your journalism expertise)
    I read your article about your choice for top Korean to English translator apps. To your knowledge, is there an accurate app that can be integrated with video chatting with hands free real time translation??(I’m surprised Skype, for instance, doesn’t have Korean language voice translation.
    Your suggestions and time are very much appreciated. Thank you

    Reply
    • Hello Laban,

      Thanks for asking. There are a few but none that we would recommend. They seem to be unreliable at this time. Hopefully the technology improves in the near future and we’ll write about them!

      Reply

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