If you study or work in Korea, or if you watch Korean dramas, you have probably heard some people address others as 선배 (Seonbae) in Korean. If you’re wondering “What does Seonbae mean?”, then you’re not alone. Our Korean teachers are asked about the meaning of Seonbae all the time. So, What does Seonbae (선배) mean?
Seonbae (선배) means ‘senior’ or ‘elder’ and is used to refer to someone who started to attend the same school as you before you did or who started to work at the same place as you before you started working there. Seonbae is used to acknowledge that this ‘senior’ person has more experience than you at school or at work.
Seonbae Meaning – Examples
Let’s look at some example situations where you can use 선배 to address someone.
Imagine you attend a university in Korea and it is your first year at that university. When you meet other students who have attended the university for 2/3 years then you can address them as Seonbae (선배). This is because they have attended the university for longer than you have and so they have more experience at the university. These people are considered ‘senior’ and are therefore referred to as Seonbae (선배).
Seonbae (선배) is not only used at schools/universities but can also be used in the workplace. Two people can have the same job and same job title, but if one person has worked there for longer, then that person is considered the ‘senior’ and is therefore referred to as 선배 (Seonbae).
Seonbae (선배) VS Seonbaenim (선배님)
There are two ways refer to a ‘senior’ at school or at work. These are 선배 (Seonbae) and 선배님 (Seonbaenim). 선배 is informal and so you can only use this word to address ‘seniors’ who you are close with. For example, at university you may be friends with or close with someone who has attended university for longer than you. In this case, you can use the informal word for senior (선배) to address them.
선배님 (Seonbaenim) on the other hand is formal. So, if you want to call someone ‘senior’ who you don’t know or are not particularly close with, then it would be safer to use the formal word for senior (선배님).
When someone who is senior (선배) wants to refer someone who is their junior, they can use the word ‘Hubae’ (후배) which means ‘junior’. For example, imagine you have attended a university in Korea for 2 years and there is someone who has only attended the university for 1 year that you want to talk about. This person is your junior and so you can refer to them as 후배 (hubae). Unlike 선배, 후배 is not usually used to call the ‘junior’ person directly, but instead is used when you want to refer to the ‘junior’ person when you are talking about them to another person.
An important thing to note is that both 선배 and 후배 have nothing to do with grade levels or age. They are more to do with your level of ‘experience’ and time spent at a particular school, workplace, or other institution.