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When I lived in Korea, a lady told me her mother had died a few days before. Being very new to the country and language, I told her "죄송합니다."

This works in English to say "I'm sorry" in such a situation. But in Korean, not so much. It makes it sound like you killed the person and are now apologizing.

What phrase or word can I use to express sympathy or regret over an unfortunate event I did not cause?

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As you say, 미안 합니다 and 죄송합니다 aren't quite right, as they're more for taking responsibility for your own actions.

In my local culture (UK), we often respond by showing concern and asking some somewhat 'matter-of-fact' questions about the situation - e.g. "had he been ill for a long time?" (오래 편찮으셨습니까?), and this approach could be appropriate in Korean too. You could say something like "많이 놀라셨겠습니다" ("you must have been very shocked") if it were appropriate.

삼가 고인의 명복을 빕니다 - literally something like "I respectfully pray for the repose of the deceased's soul" is a phrase worth knowing, though it would be odd to come straight out with it on hearing the news.

For less serious unfortunate news, 유감입니다 is a common phrase meaning 'it's a pity', 'it's a shame' - though this would be too 'weak' as a response to something (like a death) that would have been very troubling to the person you are speaking to.

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  • 유감입니다 sounds inappropriate (or not natural) here. It means something like "I'm sorry that it happened," and in some cases it carries the connotation of "...but that's not my fault." Because if it was your fault you would have said "미안합니다" or "죄송합니다". (Of course nobody will accuse the speaker of the old lady's death, so that point is moot, but still the phrase sounds too much business-like to me.)
    – jick
    Aug 31 '16 at 19:42
  • @jick when you say "inappropriate here", what do you mean by "here"?
    – topo morto
    Aug 31 '16 at 19:46
  • Sorry, should have been clear. I mean, it sounds inappropriate/unnatural to me as a response for someone's death. (On the other hand, it will be OK if you just received a letter of resignation: "I'm sorry that it didn't work out for you.")
    – jick
    Aug 31 '16 at 20:37
  • @jick When it comes to the 'death' example, I totally agree - that's what I was trying to say by "it might sound a little weak if ...". But I thought I'd mention 유감입니다 as it seemed relevant to a range of situations under the heading "regret over an unfortunate event I did not cause" or "responding to unfortunate news".
    – topo morto
    Aug 31 '16 at 20:46
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Your question is very difficult to answer because Koreans have very different ways of responding to such a bad news and it will entirely depend on sex of the responder, (social) position of the speaker and responder, age of the deceased, etc. Basically, there is no idiomatic expression such as "I am (so, very) sorry to hear that (the news)."

If a speaker is your friend, you could consider saying:

진짜! 마음이 많이 아프겠다. (Literally) Really? It must hurt your feeling a lot.

or

얼마나 마음 고생이 심했니. (Literally) How much you suffered mentally (emotionally).

If a speaker is your senior or elder as in your case, you could consider saying:

얼마나 상심이 크시겠어요. (Literally) How broken-hearted you are.

or

얼마나 마음 고생이 심하셨겠어요. (Literally) Honorific of 얼마나 마음 고생이 심했니.

'상심' literally means 'feeling of loss" and '마음 고생' literally means 'hardship (suffering) of mind'.

There could be more.

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In Korea, they use

너무 상심(傷心)하지 마세요(마시고). -> Don't be too sad.

Or adding:

옥체를 보전(保存)하시기 바랍니다 -> Take good care of yourself (literally 'your body').

Here 옥체(玉體) is a honorific form of 몸.

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  • 1
    Er, 옥체 is not just a honorific form of 몸, it means the royal (king's) body. Usage of the word is pretty much confined to historical drama.
    – jick
    Aug 31 '16 at 19:10

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