By Stevie D. Last updated:
While traveling in Korea, you accidentally bump into someone in a department store food court, spilling the food from their tray all over them.
What should you do?
Well, an apology is definitely in order—but you don’t know how to give one!
In this post, we’ll cover the most common ways to say sorry in Korean, from informal to very formal, depending on the situation.
So, let’s grovel away, then!
- Two Main Ways to Say “Sorry” in Korean
- 1. 미안 – Informal
- 2. 죄송 – Formal
- Other Korean Phrases to Express You’re Sorry
- 제 잘못이에요. — It’s my fault.
- 다시는 안 그럴게요. — I won’t do it again.
- 제발 화내지 마세요. — Please don’t be mad at me.
- How to Respond When Someone Says “Sorry” to You
- 당신을 용서합니다. — I forgive you.
- 사과를 받아들일게. — Apology accepted.
- 아니에요, 괜찮습니다. — It’s okay, never mind.
- Cultural Considerations When Apologizing in Korean
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Two Main Ways to Say “Sorry” in Korean
You might 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. The stems are usually not used on their own and the correct endings must be added onto them.
For a quick introduction to both and how they’re used, check out this video.
Let’s have a look at each one and their variations in closer detail!
1. 미안 – Informal
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 and you use it when saying sorry to your friends. It’s probably the most common informal apology and is a lot more sincere than the previous one.
Also, this is often the apology used in boyfriend-girlfriend relationships. Your “sorry” might be more acceptable when accompanied by romantic gestures of “reparations,” like flowers and chocolates.
For this one, you simply add 해요 (hae-yo) to the 미안 stem.
With 미안해요, we’re now entering the more formal category. The tone is more serious.
You use 미안해요 for people who are a bit older than you, people your age that you don’t know very well or that you work with, and people who rank slightly 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.
2. 죄송 – Formal
Variations: 죄송해요, 죄송합니다
With 죄송, we’re getting even more formal with the apology. Note that with this stem, there are no informal ending variations, as it is only used in formal situations! The stem shouldn’t be used on its own either.
죄송해요 may used with elders that you know well—like when you’re apologizing to parents or grandparents and people who are above you in age, rank, or social standing.
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.
Despite its high level of formality, it’s one of the most used ways of apologizing because you can never go wrong with being too polite! It’s one that you should definitely remember.
You often 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.
You also use this one with your boss, people of higher rank than you, or people much older than you that you don’t know very well.
Other Korean Phrases to Express You’re Sorry
제 잘못이에요. — 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.
다시는 안 그럴게요. — 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.
제발 화내지 마세요. — 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.
To avoid such situations as much as possible, it’s important to understand how phrases are used in context. Using a language learning program such as FluentU, which teaches with authentic videos like music videos and news reports, can help you observe what native speakers say in various contexts.
Each video comes with interactive subtitles to help you learn more efficiently, and you can access the program on the go with theiOS and Android apps.
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. — 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. — Apology accepted.
This one is an informal one that you could use with someone that you’re dating or a friend.
아니에요, 괜찮습니다. — 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.
Cultural Considerations When Apologizing in Korean
- In Korea, you don’t use the words “sorry,” 미안해요 or 죄송해요, when expressing sympathy or when you’re regretful about another person’s misfortune. You can say 안타깝네 or 안타깝네요 (an-ta-kkam-ne-yo) instead. It means you’re sad to hear about it… but not “sorry.”
- Bowing when asking for forgiveness is expected when addressing elders, strangers, and those above you. 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 worse the offense and the deeper your remorse, the lower you bow and the longer you stay down.
- Educate yourself on social faux pas so you don’t accidentally offend someone. Koreans are generally understanding of foreigners’ social booboos, but you should definitely have your 죄송합니다 ready just in case. To avoid that, make sure you’re aware of the rules of Korean social etiquette.
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.