I find Korean culture endlessly fascinating, interesting, and fun. I’m constantly learning new elements of it. My simple one year abroad teaching English started a love affair with Korean culture that grew to be not only three years living and teaching in Korea, but also a popular blog on Korean culture in Toronto and finally, ATK Magazine. So many fabulous things have happened since I was first introduced to Korea when I stepped off the plane in 2005 and I can’t wait to see what else happens.
But… there are a few elements of Korean culture that I have a hard time with. The one I struggle with most now that I’m back in Canada is how to address someone. You see, Canadians for the most part are quite informal when we address each other, especially if both people are adults. Oh, don’t get me wrong, we are usually polite and will call strangers “Sir” or “Madam” but once we have been introduced to someone, we generally call each other by our first names unless there is a huge age gap (like more than 20-30 years). Yeah, it can depend on the person but it would be odd to speak formally in Canada to someone you know if they’re within 10-15 years of your age. Or even outside of it as I’ve called each and every one of my bosses by their first name.
In Korea, on the other hand, the rules are completely different. Age is a huge factor in how you should speak to someone there. This is why the first question Koreans ask when meeting someone new is “How old are you?” Many non-Koreans find this odd as it’s not a question that we generally ask and in some Western cultures, it can even be a little rude. But it’s necessary to know people’s ages in Korea so you know how formally to talk to them. If there is more than a year difference in your ages, it changes the level of formality of speech.
Age is not just important for knowing how to speak to each other but also how to address them. People don’t refer to each other by their first names in Korea, not unless they are close friends AND the same age. It’s much more common to refer to the other person by their title – a job title like gwajangnim (과장님, manager/supervisor) or an honorary one like noona (누나, older sister). And even when you do refer to someone by their first name, it’s often followed by the honorific “ssi” (씨, an honorific).
While I was living in Korea, I got used to it and would just tell all my friends who were younger to speak informally to me – to speak in banmal (반말, informal/familiar speech). I, however, tended to speak in informal polite Korean most of the time just to be safe – lots of ~yo endings and using titles when necessary – because it was hard to learn more than one level of Korean and it’s better to be too polite than not polite enough; or speak in English. The second option was the easiest as most people when speaking in English don’t adhere to the Korean rules so we could just say “Hi Cindy.”
However, I’ve found this challenging once I’ve come back to Canada because now that I’m back, I think like a Canadian again. And it’s not just me… often when I’m at an event and networking, I meet new people and generally we just introduce ourselves by our first names – “Hi, I’m Cindy and I write about Korean culture for ATK Magazine.” Now, I freely admit that networking isn’t my forte but I’m going to make a concentrated effort to collect more business cards because they are my best tool for referring to the person correctly afterwards (and learning last names).
But I still have questions…
What if I want to write about them? Are there different rules for writing someone’s name than when speaking it? I write in English – almost exclusively – so should I follow Canadian written etiquette – i.e. follow generally accepted journalism protocol? But I’m writing about Korean culture so should I follow Korean written etiquette? We write in an informal, conversational style at ATK Magazine, should that affect how we refer to people mentioned in our articles? So many questions… When this was simply a blog, it wasn’t as important. No, that’s not correct. It’s always important to be polite, of course. But up until recently, it wasn’t an issue as I generally didn’t write about older Koreans except actors and then I simply followed the generally acceptable rules of simple referring to them by their full name.
I know and can follow the different rules of formality in spoken Korean even if I prefer the informal Canadian rules, or lack thereof (sorry, I’m pretty laidback) but am curious about correct etiquette in writing someone’s name. So I’m asking for your help! When I mention a Korean person in an article, how should I refer to them (if they don’t tell me what they prefer) in English? Full name always? With honorifics? I’m leaning towards following Canadian journalism guidelines but what are your thoughts?
P.S. Wondering why I’m asking this question when I could just ask a friend? Because the age question and more formal speaking between Korean and most (if not all) Western countries is often a topic of conversation so I thought it would not only make a good article but also might spark some interesting discussion.