Politeness in Korea—or, The Deepest Rabbit Hole Imaginable

Searching for the answer to why things are so fucked up here at one of the only places in Korea you can find any nice art---an ancient temple high up in the mountains.

Korean isn’t just a strange language; it’s a language isolate, which means that it is indeed so strange that no one can figure out where it comes from, what it’s related to, or how it got to be where it is today. One of the many odd features of the language is that, in manufacturing a verb or an adjective or god knows what else, the speaker must also choose whether to tack on one of several endings to express his or her social position relative to the listener’s—I must speak up to elders at all times and only speak down to friends or those younger than me.

Some simple examples, in English:

(to an elder) I’m running late-imnida!
(to a child) I’m running late-aw!

The illustration is crude but I hope it makes things clearer.

Now for the longest time I thought there was no equivalent in English. Many Koreans seem to think that English is just all banmal—informal speaking—all the time, but that isn’t the case. Would you greet your grandparents, or an elderly stranger on the subway, in the same way you’d greet an old friend you see every day? Probably not. But English is a bit more subtle, and I think the degree of politeness you express depends far more on your tone than on the words you use. Someone who has gone to grad school isn’t going to speak politely in the same way as someone who hasn’t finished elementary school, but both of them can convey the same effect through tone, body language, and all sorts of other factors, and successfully have a polite conversation with someone whom they respect.

The same is not quite true of Korean. I think you can say “what’s happening?” to your grandmother if you use a positive tone in English, but you can’t speak Korean banmal to an elder under any circumstances. Recently a girl apparently spoke this way to an old lady on the subway in Seoul and all hell broke loose. I’ve heard Koreans say that two men or two women can’t be friends if they aren’t the same age—while friendships between the sexes are impossible—but this sentiment is obviously ridiculous since no one was ever born at the exact same instant as anyone else.

Cut the shit!

To justify this fundamental root of all the madness that is in Korea, a Korean told me that elders have been around longer, they know what’s up, and they can act as role models for the younger generation, so we should automatically defer with them. As with many aspects of Confucianism (wherein this idea supposedly originates; I suspect its roots go deeper into the foundations of this most dysfunctional peninsula) the philosophy is sound but the real-life practice is utterly inane. Many, many people everywhere are just children in grownup bodies, and I do not think age is a significant factor in accumulated wisdom, which depends on so many things. A successful Wall Street pirate cannot navigate the streets of Bamako like a native, therefore, in that situation, the native is wiser; similarly, the native of Bamako probably doesn’t know how to stuff his pockets full of as much cash as the typical trader who amuses himself by wiping his ass with hundred-dollar bills pulled straight from the pockets of the same blue collar workers who just elected a government that will work around the clock to facilitate at least as much robbery and general infamy as we’ve seen since the Supreme Court chose our president ten years ago. So the Bamako man will be clueless on Wall Street, and wisdom is often relative to the circumstance. But I digress. What I’m trying to say is that I think age is the most simpleminded way of determining how wise someone is.

And so many of the old people here abuse their power and their social status. Just today on the subway ride home I witnessed two parallel instances of typical Korean politeness and typical Korean abuse of hierarchy: a man got up to give his seat to an old woman (and had to convince her repeatedly to sit down; she must have politely refused his offer five or six times); just before this happened, a middle-aged man rushed in and snatched up a nearby seat and coolly grimaced at everyone around him, including several women who were obviously older than him who had to stand up—and when I saw this I, as a man who is slowly but surely absorbing a little bit too much of this culture into his psyche, I almost yelled at him and told him to get up for one of the helpless elders.

The hardy ajumma believes standing in the subway for five minutes is more difficult than hiking a mountain for two hours.

For the record, I almost always stand on subways because Koreans, for all their hiking, for all their sprinting in six inch heels whenever they have to get somewhere, are unusually obsessed with finding a place to sit on the subway, and rush in through the doors as if their children will be enslaved if they do not locate a place to sit until they have to get off two minutes later at the next stop. Whereupon they will proceed to stand still on the escalator and prevent anyone from walking past them on the left side. I digress again. This is yet another one of those little things that really, really gets to you after so many months here.

But I said nothing to that guy. If elders are always right, and youths are always wrong, foreigners are shitheads, so I invoked the prime directive and hung back.

Despite this avowed shitheadedness, there are now far more foreigners in Korea than ever before, at least since the war (and the two Japanese invasions…and the Mongolian invasion before that…hmmm…maybe this country isn’t quite so homogenous as everyone says?), and Koreans everywhere are able to take advantage of the fact that they can speak banmal to most of foreigners without any threat of reprieve. So far as I can tell, almost all of this happens to me at school. I’ve spent several months now telling the kids at my school to speak politely to me, which I didn’t care about for a long time until I figured out that they mean to insult me every time they neglected to tack a -yo ending onto their words—that effort, combined with the far more immense effort of studying the language, is bearing fruit, because I think in order to fit into your place in the hierarchy here you have to speak the language—where the culture so obviously expresses itself every time someone opens his or her mouth—and you have to know when someone is deliberately insulting you.

I'll beat the crap out of you unless you realize that enlightenment can come to anyone, young or old!

But the question is obviously this: why, why, why, do Korean children so often speak so impolitely to older foreigners? Some have written here that it’s because Koreans think English is just all banmal, all the time, which gives them an excuse to flagrantly insult foreigners whenever they speak to them; I suspect something else is at work. In this society, virtually everyone is underneath someone else. By the time you’re old enough to be at the top of the hierarchy you’re waiting to die in a hospital bed: therefore you must constantly kowtow to people whom you do not really know and therefore cannot really respect, and because this practice in Korea is so extreme, so omnipresent, so inescapable, and so utterly frustrating—young people can be right and old people can be wrong—there is almost nowhere to release that energy, except, of course, to the 외국인, who probably won’t retaliate or won’t even realize if you speak to him improperly—as you so desperately want to do to all the assholes who are only slightly older than you but use that as an excuse to ignore you and order you around like a slave. That’s why young kids here are so unusually, notoriously bad—the culture is so old-fashioned, so arbitrary, out-of-touch, and oppressive, that when children have an opportunity to escape they cannot help themselves. And, ironically, they take out all the pressure on the one group of people in Korea who probably possess a relatively egalitarian way of looking at things.

If it were easier to go abroad and escape to a certain special place where people are supposedly judged by their character rather than the way they look—whew, what an exodus there would be.

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2 thoughts on “Politeness in Korea—or, The Deepest Rabbit Hole Imaginable

  1. Ollin says:

    This is fascinating. I love how other languages can reveal a lot about your own. I love the uniqueness in cultures. Although I don’t understand Korean, I used to tutor Koreans but somehow I still understood this dynamic through tone and body language. Very interesting.

  2. Katie says:

    This is really interesting and thorough. It’s great to hear it from a foreigner in Korea.

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