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Dear Korean,

How do you address your seonbae when you're not at work? I mean I know I will still refer to him/her as seonbae and at the beginning we will both use formal language, but what happens if he/she wants to drop the honorifcs? If we are, for example, out for a drink and we want to talk in a casual manner what happens if my seonbae is younger than me? Will they now call me unnie/nuna? And if so, aren't they supposed to use honorific language towards me?

Really Confused Polish Girl


Honorifics in Korean language confuse most non-Koreans. They are generally aware that honorifics exist in Korea, and there are certain rules as to how the honorifics are used. Because honorifics--at least, the kind that is as complicated as Korea's--don't really exist in most languages, it is difficult for non-Koreans to imagine how honorifics are supposed to be used in real life. They can try to learn the rules, but it only confuses them more because they can easily come up with a situation where two rules conflict with each other--like the questioner here.

In reality, honorifics is not that complicated. As a practical matter, there is only one default rule: between two adults, polite speech is used, especially if they are meeting for the first time. The age difference between the two adults does not matter. The social relationship between the two adults does not matter. Between two adults, polite speech is used. If you are visiting Korea and you are not entirely sure about your honorific rules, this is all you need to remember. In fact, it is not strange at all for an adult to use the polite speech to a child that he is meeting for the first time.

If you have room in your head for one more rule, here it is:  if two adults want to break away from the default, they can work it out between them. These are the only two rules that you really need to know about honorifics. 

Seeing how this plays out in real life situation makes it much easier to understand. Below are some real life situations that TK encountered recently.

Scenario 1.  TK teaches a graduate school class for non-U.S. attorneys. Some of TK's students are Koreans, and converse with TK in Korean. Can TK drop the honorifics to his Korean students, because he is the teacher and they are his students? No. Why? Because between adults, polite speech is used. 

Scenario 2.  At the same graduate school, TK sometimes works together with a research fellow, who is a Korean woman older than TK. TK refers to the research fellow as seonbaenim [upperclassman] and uses the polite speech, because she began working for the graduate school before TK did. Can the research fellow then drop the honorifics to TK, because TK is her hubae [lower-classman] and younger than she? No. Why? Because between adults, polite speech is used. 

Scenario 3.  TK has a close friend RB. RB is older than TK, so TK refers to him as hyeong [older brother], and RB drops the honorifics to TK. One day, RB introduces another one of his friend, JS, to TK. JS is the same age as RB. Can JS drop the honorifics to TK right away? No. Why? Because between adults, polite speech is used. JS is meeting TK for the first time. It does not matter that JS is older than TK, nor does it matter that JS is the same age as RB who has dropped the honorifics to TK.

Scenario 4.  TK, RB, and JS meet for the second time. After a few round of drinks, TK tells JS to drop the honorifics, because JS is RB's friend. JS agrees. Is this ok? Yes, because if two adults want to break away from the default, they can work it out between them

Get the picture? Now, there will be plenty of situations that seem to break the default rule, but that is only because of the second rule: two adults can always work out the level of honorifics they want for themselves. Sometimes the work-out process is explicitly verbal, as in Scenario 4; sometimes, it is a gradual transition where both parties decide over time that their arrangement is ok. What doesn't happen is some kind of complicated mathematics to figure out who deserves the honorifics, based on some kind of rigid and esoteric rules. Koreans have better things to do than that--like actually talking to each other.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.