Egalitarianism? What’s that?

From Learning to Think Korean: A Guide to Living and Working in Korea by Robert Kohls:

One of the most difficult relationships for Americans to adjust to in Korea is that of master and servant.  Korean servants are unequivocally inferior to their employers, and it is embarrassing to the servants and offensive to Koreans of higher rank to treat them in any way as equal, to introduce servants, for instance, to your higher-ranking guests.  It has been 80 years since servants were common in American middle-class households.  The mere idea of servants is foreign to us, which, combined with our egalitarian impulses, makes it hard for us to order them to do something instead of asking them if they would please do it.  If you speak Korean, the imperative to surmount your egalitarianism is reinforced because the language demands that you talk down to servants as inferiors.

Replace the word “servant” with “teacher”, and you have how I often feel.

One thing that Marc remarked on while he was here is that Koreans don’t really have words for “Please”, “Excuse me”, or “Sorry”.  Technically, they do, but nobody uses them.  My Korean phrase books and cultural etiquette books say that not only should you not bother learning them, but that you will make Koreans feel awkward if you do use them.  Similarly, when asking for something from someone who you can’t immediately and positively identify as more important than you, the Korean phrase to do so (주사ㅛ, I believe) translates pretty much to “Give X to me.”, rather than what we would consider more polite – something along the lines of “I’d like X, please.”.  When I read that excerpt above, my mind went immediately to these two linguistic examples.

Honestly, these linguistic features are very indicative of Korean culture, I feel.  Cultural attitudes can often be found written into languages, and Korean is no exception.  In French, you have the “Tu” and “Vous” forms:  the familiar and the formal.  In Korean, there is a whole different way of talking to someone, and it’s not based on the familiar/formal model, it’s based on “how much higher in status am I than you?”.  A slip up is not merely a grammatical mistake but a potential insult.

I recently found out that one of the reasons that my supervisor has been pissy with me is that I have stopped referring to her as “[Name] Chang-ak San Nim”, which means “[Name] Supervisor” and instead have just been calling her by her last name.  This degree of formality is very alien to us informal Americans, and it has been a major adjustment for me, especially since I am often seen as relatively informal, even insolent, back in the relaxed USA.  I am slowly learning that the way to get things here is not only to stand your ground, as I am very used to doing, but also to be overly, sickeningly sweet, and make it look like you are trying hard to work with them.

I am enjoying this book, and you can likely expect more excerpts from it in the future.

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7 Responses to “Egalitarianism? What’s that?”


  1. 1 Tuttle July 29, 2008 at 1:01 am

    1) Thank you for adding me to your bloglist; I’ll return the favor. Getting a little unsettled as I’m less than one month away.
    2) I have been learning the Pimsleur Korean, which regularly points out I’m learning to address an older person/higher up. How much different are terms for equals and youngers? This language is plenty difficult as it is! Thanks to Pimsleur, though, I feel confident I can order beer or soju, or ask where someplace is at. Of course, understanding the directions is a different matter.

  2. 2 jindowaygook July 29, 2008 at 1:59 am

    Heh. Yeah, that last month is hard. You’re excited, but also you start to listen to all the negative things and have second thoughts. My only advice is to listen to EVERYTHING, both the good and the bad. That and to come in with low expectations. I know that sounds depressing, but honestly, it will make you less frustrated once you get here.

    The problem with learning to ask questions in Korean is that you then get the answers in Korean. If I even say “I don’t speak Korean.” then they tend to seem to think “Yes you do, you just did.” and continue speaking to me in Korean at 90mph. I end up just saying “mulayo”, which means “I don’t understand/I don’t know.”, which tends to get the point across.

    I have really worked on trying to learn Korean here, but at the end of the day, it’s hard to find the willpower to, as since I’m surrounded by it all day, the LAST thing I want to do is hear Korean when I get home.

    A warning about soju – it hits westerners like a ton of bricks, for some reason. I had one bottle recently – about the equivalent alcohol of 2.5 beers, and I was reasonably tender around the edges in the morning. I hear some horrible stuff about the hangovers that come from drinking any real quantity of the stuff.

    I assume you are well acquainted with eslcafe.com?

  3. 3 Tuttle July 29, 2008 at 3:24 am

    Soju holds no fears for me. I am concerned, though, that your version of “I dunno” is mul-ayo, where Pimsleur says, mor-duil-guess-seyo (I make up my own pinyin, since there’s no standard anyway). Well, unless this “mul” of which you speak also means “what”, like muil ma-shil guess-seyo (what drink would?) I am hoping to find someone that will trade learning Korean with learning English, since I am serious about learning how to communicate beyond simply getting by.

    My acquaintance with Dave’s cafe is slipping, since I decided on my course of action, eschewed hogwons and decided on the Seoul metropolitan public school route. I got the correct level of pay and am waiting to see what my appointment is. There are 11 school districts in the city, and I could be at any one, I guess-seyo.

  4. 4 jindowaygook July 29, 2008 at 3:30 am

    Well, all I know is that in general, Pimsleur is way-polite. I hear “mulayo” from both students and adults alike, and they don’t seem to take offense to it. I was told that word/phrase by a Korean anyway, so it’s at least somewhat right.

    Even though you’ll be at a public school (as I am), there are still pleeeenty of problems that can arise, so I wouldn’t eschew that association with Dave’s just yet.

  5. 5 Rose August 7, 2008 at 9:31 am

    Interesting Chinese politeness tidbit (the “excuse me” example reminded me):

    If an American doesn’t say “thank you” to their spouse (for whatever: bringing them a cup of water, or any other similar little act of kindness), it can turn into a “My wife/husband doesn’t appreciate me!” fiasco.

    If a Chinese person DOES say “thank you” in these same situations, it means the marriage is quite likely coming to an end — the thanked person will seriously wonder if their spouse wants a divorce.

  6. 6 Driftingfocus August 7, 2008 at 11:43 am

    Wow. Very interesting!

    Koreans just treat everyone a little rudely, both Koreans and outsiders alike.

  7. 7 gordsellar August 7, 2008 at 9:42 pm

    Hmmm. I’d be leery about any book published in 2001 — a lot has changed since then. Then again, outside Seoul, maybe not so much.

    What’s amusing to me is how many students have claimed to me the same thing you did here, but in reverse: “English doesn’t have any way of being polite.” Well, it does, it’s just less coded into conjugations and thus harder to pull off when you’re a non-native speaker. (“I’m wondering if it might be possible, if you don’t mind, …” vs. “혹시… 할수 있음니까?”)

    See, it kind of depends on the person. I think the Tu and Vous are, functionally, more equivalent to the various forms of hierarchic politeness used in Korean. When I say to a cabbie, “자회전가세요,” my fiancee makes a point of correcting me to say, more politely, “자회전가주세요,” as the 주 seems to denote the personal request. The familiar, “자회전 가~!” would be insulting because it’s explicitly familiar. So to me, while the rules of familiarity and formality differ, the concept exists. In fact, one of my first close Korean friends here always speaks to children in the polite form (ie. with “요”) because she thinks we should be polite to strangers regardless of age. Uncommon, yes, but it is a glimmer of comparability, that suggests a “polite” form of exchange does exist, at least for some people, that isn’t necessarily dependent on age or rank.

    But that said, there are a lot of people who are just plain rude here, especially to their juniors. I was once told about an article online here (Naver, maybe, or Daum) that contained an interview with a 7-11 employee who said that in Korea, the mean age of politeness is about mid-20s to 30s. Younger than that, you have little kids who come in whining and begging for stuff when despite being broke, and older than that, you get patronizing attitudes and a lot of, “Who the f*** do you think you are, kid? You’re a 7-11 employee. Give me a discount on this crap. Now.” In essence, the person interviewed said the older the man, the more like a little boy his behaviour could be expected to be.

    Also, a lot of these supervisors who insist on being called some XYZ title by foreign employees are just tools on a powertrip. I’ve never met a Korean who was insistent about such titles who I wanted to spend more than the necessary amount of time around. But officious idjits exist everywhere. I remember a story from, what was it, a decade ago maybe, about a guy who killed his junior on the subway for speaking to him with insufficient formality. They were drunk. But it’s rare.

    Finally, I suspect apologies like 최송합니다 get used less than “Sorry,” partly because we use “Sorry,” even when we don’t feel culpable. Koreans tend not to apologize for things they don’t care to accept full culpability for, since apologizing seems to be equivalent to accepting blame (and perhaps an upbraiding). But also, because lots of things just aren’t considered offensive. Like stepping on someone’s foot, or something. (Which I think has more to do with slow cultural change, and the recentness of urbanization here. People in villages wouldn’t step on feet because they weren’t in crowded subways.)


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