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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.

December 2019
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