Hierarchy in Korean language and culture

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If you are fan of K-dramas, often watch entertainment shows with your favorite idols and find yourself learning Korean, you may have realized the role of hierarchy in Korean language and culture when communicating with others. Well, it is not an exaggeration when it is said that Koreans cannot communicate a single word without first considering their social position, the person to whom they are addressing and the people and subject referred, in order to shape their speech with the appropriate level of courtesy.

Next, you will learn about two of the main factors that determine the position and level of respect with which a person deserves to be treated in a Korean environment according to the cultural practices appropriated in their society.

First, age is considered one of the most important elements in the construction of the different social hierarchies. From the teachings of Neo-Confucianism, a solid thought was built around respect for the elderly. From slogans such as gyeong-losasang (경로 사상) ‘respect the elderly’ and jang-yuyuseo (장유 유서) ‘the old and the young know their place’, some manners arise, such as letting the older person enter first when a door is open, or in the table wait for the elderly to sit down and take the cutlery before starting to eat.

Age plays such an important role in Korean society that it is very common for this to be one of the first pieces of information that a Korean asks someone they have just met. Indeed, for Korean speakers it is key to know the age of the people around them, as this determines the way they should behave and communicate, even if there is a difference of only 1 or 2 years.

Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

Second, the educational or work position is a fundamental element in determining the correct interaction with the other. This factor begins to influence from the first social relationships occurring in educational spaces, operating under the logic of the senior and junior concepts. Thus, for example, if you have a schoolmate of the same age, but she is studying a higher degree, the way to address her should be more formal, since it is assumed that she has more experience and therefore deserves more respect.

In relation to the work position, if age and position conflict, the occupation tends to exert more power. An example is the scenario where the CEO of a company is younger than her employees. In this case, the director is not obliged to apply the honorific modifications by age with her employees; however, they should use a more formal register both when addressing her and when talking about her. One might think that these hierarchical codes are also evident in Western work culture; nevertheless, it is claimed that people in Korea feel more pressure to comply with these standards.

In short, these hierarchical factors play a crucial role in the Korean language and culture, which also allow reflection and generate discussions around respect for the elderly, abuses of power, among many others. Tell us, in your country, what elements determine the level of respect and formality to address and talk with a person? 

Written by: Laura Fino


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