One of the challenging parts about learning Korean is learning the levels of formality. I’m not used to thinking of people in different levels of hierarchy.
Yesterday my Korean friend asked me, “Why do you keep using 존댓말 (formal speech) with me?” I was like, “I can’t help it! I always forget! Why? Did I use it just now?” I didn’t even realize how formal I had been until she repeated back what I had just said.
In English, you use the same words to speak to everyone. You may use slang around close friends or formalize some speech in special settings, but generally you express yourself the same way no matter who your audience is. “I’m full.” “The sky is beautiful today.” You say it the same to anyone.
In Korean, your audience has everything to do with how you speak.
As a friend recently articulated, Korean is all about relationship. It’s about who you are speaking to, what their relationship is to you, and what they know and don’t know. The first question people ask each other when they meet is how old the other person is. It’s important to establish from the outset of your relationship who is higher in hierarchy.
In the US, we have some concept of hierarchy, but not between friends. In Korea, you are supposed to show respect to not only your teachers, bosses, and elders, but also to your older “brothers” and “sisters.” I actually love the practice of calling older friends “older brother” or “older sister.” To me, it feels like a mark of intimacy, of belonging.
Korean is a very concise language, but even with its brevity and my limited vocabulary I have a wide range of choices of how to express myself. For example, I can say, “I’m full,” three or four different ways depending on whether I’m speaking to a teacher, a close friend, or a waiter.
Sometimes, I find the hierarchy thing stressful. (When I’m not sure how formally to address someone, I usually revert to speaking in English––an easy out for a foreigner.) But the levels of formality also provide an opportunity to express intimacy in a way that is largely lacking in English. When my friend asked me why I was speaking to her formally, she wasn’t merely trying to correct my Korean, she was also asking as a friend who was being treated like a stranger. She is a year younger than me, so the only reason to speak to her formally would be if we didn’t know each other at all. Speak informally expresses our closeness, our familiarity.
Tomorrow I start formal Korean classes! I’m excited to dig into new grammar and vocabulary, but I’m even more excited to build new relationships and use the Korean language to explore those relationships.