In South Korea you need to ask the age of people after meeting them due to various factors such as the social status and the level of intimacy in the relationship with the recipient. Even the difference of one year can dictate everything from the way people talk to each other to the way they eat and drink together.
“The number one factor in determining which speech style to use is age. This is why people always ask each other about age. Not because they are necessarily interested in how old the other is, but because they really need to find the right speech style, “Jieun Kiaer, professor of Korean language and linguistics at Oxford University, told the BBC.
To understand why age is more than a number within South Korean society, it is relevant to know the impact of neo-Confucianism An ancient ideology that ruled the country for more than 500 years throughout the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) and continues to dictate social norms, it focuses on filial piety, deference to the elderly, and social order.
“This current stems from Chinese Confucianism, the teachings of which emerged during a period of upheaval, and can be summed up in two words: humanity and ritual,” said Ro Young-chan, professor of religious studies and director of the Center for Korean Studies in George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia (United States).
To restore order throughout China, Confucius believed that humanity could be saved by establishing a social structure based on a strict code of good manners and ceremonial rites, in which everyone had a certain role and everyone understood their place in society. .
At neo-Confucianism social harmony can be achieved by respecting the natural order within five central relationships known as oryun: king and subject; husband and wife; father and son; brother and brother; and from friend to friend.
Those who hold the leading role (father, husband, king) should be treated with respect and humility, while in return those in the lower rungs of the social hierarchy are looked after with benevolence.
In South Korean society, in general, when you meet someone you do not know who is assigned the highest position and you earn the respect, courtesies and honorific formalities that accompany it, that is why the factor comes to be considered age. This goes hand in hand with the Korean Honors Language System, which has up to seven levels of speaking and writing styles.
But everyday conversation can be divided into two: banmal, the casual and informal way; and jondaemal, the most formal and deferential, which is generally expressed by adding the ending “I” to a sentence.
“It takes a lot of care and talk to find the right speech styles. And if the wrong one is used, it can create a lot of conflicts and you will not be able to start a successful conversation “, said Kiaer, who although he explained that” age plays an important role in determining the style of speech, it is not a rule of thumb. strict and fast application ”.
In the most intimate relationships, for example, older friends are not called by name, but by the generic term “older sister” (unni when a woman speaks, noona when a man speaks).
Older male friends are also called “older brother” (obba for female speakers, hyung for male speakers).
“In Korea, social ethics is an extension of the family. We have to understand society as a bigger family. If you meet an older person, you treat them like your older brother or sister. It is an interesting way of looking at society, the nation and the world. That humanity is just an extension of our family, ”explained Ro.
“To find the right speech style, the first step is always to negotiate. Because if you switch to another style without negotiating, that’s what makes people feel offended, “Kiaer said.