Korean media have been reporting heavily on gapjil (갑질) over the past few weeks. The word is a fairly newly coined term consisting of the word 갑 (甲) literally meaning the “first party in a contract” and 질 which refers to demonstrating a certain behavior. Put together as a colloquial expression it means the arrogant or authoritarian attitude by someone who’s in a position of power over others.

A textbook example of gapjil was recently provided by the spoiled-brat heiress to Korean Air, Cho Hyunmin, who reportedly threw a temper tantrum and tossed water in the face of an employee. This is only a few years after big sis halted a flight from New York to Seoul because one of the flight attendants had the audacity of serving her nuts in a bag and not on a plate (can you imagine!?), after which she demanded that the attendant kneel and apologize.

Now daddy has had to yet again publically apologize on his errant daughters’ behalf, and this time he has promised that they are both being removed from their duties in the company. (Probably a smart move.)

Korea may not have noble families like Europe or a caste system like India. However, the closest you come to near-royalty in Korea is the chaebol families, which are the super-rich family empires that own the major conglomerates in the country like Samsung, Hyundai, LG, etc. These firms are infamous for their strict hierarchical structures where gapjil bosses are thriving and plenty. A recent survey among Korean employees revealed that 97% had witnessed episodes of gapjil, where someone up the hierarchical ladder made a huge fuss about minor things and took it out on someone below them. The problem, however, is not only in the shocking commonness of the issue but rather that only 9% were reported to actually do something about it such as tell the boss to stop the behavior or report it to someone superior. The vast majority said they would just shrug and try not to let it bother them. And this is the real problem since the silent accept allows this childish behavior to continue unhindered.

For those interested in the linguistics of the expression, Talk To Me In Korean discusses the word gapjil in their book on Korean slang expressions. Here’s a sample dialogue kindly borrowed from the book (which I highly recommend):

A: 나 오늘 회사 그만뒀어. I quit my job today.

B: 뭐라고? 정말? 왜? What? Really? Why?

A: 직속상사가 너무 갑질을 해서. My direct boss was bullying me and being too gapjil.

This could very well have been me before I went back to grad school 6 years ago. I just didn’t know the word gapjil back then. I wonder if this word makes its way into English like other Korean slang words such as mukbang.

Have any of you experienced gapjil? Do share!

1 Comment »

  1. So from what I’m understanding it almost seems like being ‘gapjil’ is about the equivalent to being a spoiled brat. I may be seeing this word wrong.


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