Honorifics Between Friends

Recently I've taken to attaching honorifics to my friends' names. (We live in the U.S. and we're all native English speakers.) It's fun, and they get a kick out of it. Some of them have even started adding さん to my name!

Sometimes, though, I wonder if I'm using the appropriate terms for my buddies. I've read quite a bit about honorifics, but I'd like your opinions too. Just as a few examples, how would you refer to...

...a female friend who is a year older than you? I've been using ちゃん because we're close. Should I use さん since she's older?

...a female friend who is a few years younger than you? For her, I also use ちゃん.

... a male friend who is less than a year younger than you? I usually add さん to his first name to be polite, but I think I'd like to use ちゃん. Would that be proper, or too affectionate? What about くん?

I know it probably doesn't matter all that much since we're just having fun, but they're my friends and I want to treat them as properly as I know how to, both within our own culture and in the new one I'm learning.

Thank you!


June 21, 2019


Hi! There's no accounting for the ways people might want to call each other. :) But if you and your friends were Japanese, in the general case, it would be like this:

  • Using chan for people older than you is inappropriate. People are known to call even their older siblings name+san. Calling someone older chan infantilizes them and sounds incredibly condescending (well, unless that person has specifically asked to be called that because they want to be percieved as kind of infantile - it's supposed to be an attractive trait in Japan, after all.) With people older than you, just using their first name and not their family name already implies closeness.

  • If she is alright with it, chan is fine for younger women. But make sure she's alright, because among adults, it may come out as quite condescending if you mistake your levels of closeness.

  • Assuming you're female, san is pretty much the only option. If you're male, kun is not out of the question, but again, may come out as quite condescending if you make a mistake. Chan is inappropriate for anyone older than a baby.

Keep in mind that using first names already implies pretty close relationship. If you were Japanese, you would call most of your casual friends, classmates, coworkers and acquintances by their family names.

June 21, 2019

Wow, thank you for taking the time to write such an in-depth reply! I'll take all of that into account. There's so many articles that "explain" honorifics, but the information isn't always consistent. I guess it's one of those things where I'd have to be immersed in the culture to get a genuine feel for it.

June 21, 2019

It is not only about whether or not you are friends, but the level of closeness between you is a substantial determiner. Your examples don't give that context.

Also, social hierarchies can dictate levels of formality. While someone might be younger than you, they might be a 'senior' member of an in-group, making くん and ちゃん impolite.

The only one that I could really comment on is the female friend who is a year older. Unless you are flirting or extremely close, using ちゃん is likely not appropriate.

June 21, 2019

Thanks for your input! As for the older friend, I'd say she and I are like sisters. Actually, I could probably say that each of them are like family.

June 21, 2019

I forgot to mention that a lot depends on the situation and who else is present. Even if you and the other person feel comfortable using more 'affectionate' forms of address, adding just one outside observer to the mix can alter things and make the person feel embarrassed or defensive about being addressed in such a manner.

I think that you kind of understand at this point that you kind of have to feel it out, gain experience, and use intuition. Also, as different individuals often have different preferences, it can sometimes be helpful to add a pregnant pause after their name and before the polite suffix to kind of feel it out or at least let them know that you are trying to find one that they are okay with.

Pay attention to body language when you address them. If the older female friend enjoys being referred to by the more youthful and affectionate ちゃん, they might be reluctant to admit it, but might crack a little gleeful smile. It's not always so obvious though.

Finding the balance between respect and affection can be tricky, but it will come in time if you stick with it.

June 21, 2019

I totally get it! Sort of like using a nickname with close friends, but switching to their real name when lesser-known acquaintances are around. Thanks!

June 22, 2019
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