I thought I had this down. Although I don’t use honorifics that much as I’m still mostly used to using the standard polite language I know how to use them and when to use them. …Or so I thought!
When I was telling my language partner of my childhood Christmas which I used to spend in my grandparents’ home when they were both alive, I accidentally said: “살아 있을 때 할아버지와 할머니의 집에 갔어요” (the sentense is ok, but I made the horrible mistake of just speaking in the plain polite style. Oh, ignorant me! Since I was speaking about my late grandparents I failed to convey the proper respect for them by not speaking about them in the honorific form which is used to address and (mind you) talk about your elders. I was quickly interrupted and told that I had to rephrase the sentence saying “살아 계실 때 할아버지와 할머니의 댁에 갔어요”. Note here the use of Korean honorific words 계시다 instead of 있다 and 댁 instead of 집. Examples of other words that change in the honorific form are listed below, but there are obviously many more.
있다 (plain) 계시다 (hon.)
먹다 (plain) 드시다 (hon.)
자다 (plain) 주무시다 (hon.)
이름 (plain) 성함 (hon.)
나이 (plain) 연세 (hon.)
집 (plain) 댁 (hon.)
To Korean learners this concept is not very advanced and most textbooks address this early on, simply because this is such an important part of the culture. TTMIK also have an awesome lesson on the concept here. Acknowledging my mistake, I then asked my language partner if I should just speak in honorifics about all of my elders in all situations. “God, no!” “Of course not!” This could cause great damage in terms of hurt Korean feelings. In order for me to completely grasp how you can possibly offend people by being polite, he drew a diagram, which I will reproduce here:
Actually it’s quite simple. You use honorifics when talking to seniors. Check! You use honorifics when talking about seniors. Check!… BUT wait! Only if the one you talk to about a senior is not a senior to your senior! Huh? As the diagram shows, there are three hierarchical levels: My LP, me, and my boss. If my LP would talk to my boss about me (not that there’d ever be a reason, but this is for the sake of argument), my boss is obviously my senior so my LP would not be able to talk about me in honorifics even though I’m his senior. Doing so might actually offend the most senior person according to Korean etiquette. According to my LP, Korean men who don’t have this concept straight will learn it the hard way during their two-year military service, where rank means more than anything! Since I have no intention of learning it that way, we agreed that I will speak to him exclusively in honorifics at our next meeting. Now, this should be fun!