This post is motivated by some questions I’ve received here on the blog. How exactly does age and social status determine how people speak to each other in Korean? Since this is a quite technical matter, I’ll try to make it as simple as possible using my own experiences from different situations and interactions here in Korea.
As you may know, there are roughly two ways of speaking in Korean, the formal (which then again has varying degrees of formality) 존댓말 jondaemal and the informal or intimate 반말 banmal. Usually, Korean learners will learn the formal version first, which is useful since this is the language you will use will all strangers and with people you are only platonically acquainted. In other words, you save the informal for the few closest people around you. Sometimes using the formal language is called “speaking up”, and the informal “speaking down”. Just please bear in mind that if used under the correct circumstances, the informal speech is by no means impolite. It’s just a sign of equality and closeness among the speakers. Usually, you only use it with close friends of around the same age as you, your close family members, and of course with your partner or spouse. The latter, however, depends on your age. I’ve actually heard several elderly married couples talk to each other formally.
So, how do I speak to people and how do they speak to me? Before I start explaining, I should probably tell you about who I speak with in Korean on a regular basis. That would be my colleagues, my students, my Korean best friend, my Korean tutor, sales clerks in shops, restaurant employees, taxi drivers, and random people on the street.
Let’s take them in this order. I address all of my colleagues by speaking up to them using the most formal version of the polite language. Here it’s not enough to add the polite ending ~요 (~yo) to my sentences. I must also use honorific language like XYZ 교수님, 오늘 세미나에 참석하실 겁니까? (honorific polite) instead of 오늘 세마니에 참석할 거예요? (neutral polite). Note that I have to say their full name followed by their title 교수님 (gyosunim –professor). This was a bit difficult for me in the beginning, since I wasn’t really used to speaking this way. I quickly got used to it, though. So, how do they speak to me? Many of them – particular the younger ones (they are all much older than me, so by younger I mean around 40), address me in the exact same way. They call me 김소희 교수님 (professor Kim Sohee, which is my Korean name) and also use honorific language with me, although they technically don’t have to, since I’m younger. My older colleagues including my boss and our dean are less formal with me and sometimes call me either 소희 교수 (professor Sohee) or 소희 샘 (teacher Sohee). They also use only the neutral polite language (the ~요 ending) and occasionally banmal.
With my students, most of them call me 소희 교수님 (professor Sohee). They also all speak to me in the most formal version of Korean, and I speak to them in neutral polite language.
My Korean best friend is the only one I’m speaking with using banmal. We’ve been speaking like this with each other for the past couple of months or so, and it was sooo difficult for me in the beginning. Not because it didn’t feel natural – it most definitely did, since we’ve known each other for a long time and are very close. It was just… I’d never really spoken in this way with anyone before, and it took quite a while getting used to. I’ve discovered that our conversations seem even more relaxed and direct now that we use this informal language with each other. There are just some things that are harder to talk about with each other in formal language. Using this informal language also means that we can drop the titles, so what do we call each other? We simply use each other’s names, and, quite often, the intimate word for “you” (너 in Korean). Since I’m slightly older than him and he’s a guy, Korean etiquette technically requires him to call me 누나 (noona – older sister to a male) even though we’re on intimate terms with each other. However, while he has a traditional stance on many issues, he’s a self-proclaimed rule-breaker with a global mindset, and I actually like how he asserts his status as my close friend and my equal by just calling me Sohee.
My new Korean tutor, on the other hand, calls me noona. This is also slacking on the rules a little bit, since he’s a student at the university where I’m teaching, so if he were to follow the rules, he should call me either professor or teacher. At our first meeting he was quick to ask my age, and immediately asked if he could call me noona, which of course I allowed. He still sticks to honorific polite language, though, and I’m using neutral polite language with him. He has told me that he’s fine with me speaking informally with him, but I’m not quite ready for this yet. Maybe in the future. So far, I’m politely ending all my sentences with ~요 and I call him name씨 (sshi is added after a name and gives the meaning of Mr./Ms.)
Whenever I go shopping or go out to eat, the employees may call me anything from 고객님 (gogaeknim – customer), 손님 (sonnim – guest), 언니 (eonni – older sister to a female), to 선생님 (seonsaengnim – teacher). They all speak to me in formal polite language. The funny thing is that I’ve noticed that when I wear my Sogang University jacket, people assume that I’m a student and often adjust their speech accordingly. This has also resulted in occasionally being addressed as 학생 (haksaeng – student). Especially older people are more likely to speak informally with me when I’m wearing this jacket. Well, I guess clothes make the man (or woman) – or as the Koreans say 옷이 날개다.
Taxi drivers, who were the protagonists of my previous blog post, usually call me 손님 (sonnim – guest), but when they find out what I do for a living, they most often shift to calling me 교수님 (gyosunim – professor). While many people call taxi drivers 아저씨 (ajusshi – middle aged man) I personally prefer the more polite 기사님 (kisanim – Mr. driver). Since they’re always much older than me, I always use the honorific polite language with them, and with one exception, they usually use neutral polite language with me.
Finally, I sometimes lose my way around Seoul and need to ask passersby for help. Obviously their age depends on how I address them. If they’re below or around my age I usually just stop them with an “excuse me” and ask in neutral polite language. If they are much older I may call them 선생님, which even though it means teacher, is also widely used for ones elders.
So, this should sum up how I interact with people in Korean. As you can see, there are some fine nuances to the Korean language and the Korean culture. Age and status is important, as it essentially determines how people can engage in conversation with each other. However, don’t let this scare you away from learning Korean. I’ve been learning for just over two years, and I feel quite comfortable. It’s just a matter of practice, practice, practice. If you’re interesting in knowing more, I’ve included a few useful videos on the topic. You can also learn more here. Happy studying!