Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Politeness in Korea (Emily Post would be proud)

I know this post is out of the ordinary but something happened in school today that got me thinking and i thought i'd share it.

Do you know how polite Koreans and Korean society are?  Tonight I learned about a Korean party game where the object is to speak rudely to others.  That's it.  Be rude.  Be disrespectful.  Please take a minute to think about that.

And while you're at it, think about this too.  The Korean language has different forms of nearly every word depending on what level of person you are addressing.  Whether the person is above you (ie older than you or in a position of authority like a teacher or boss), equal to you (your same age or a coworker) or below you (younger than you or your subordinate) completely changes what you say and how you say it.  You refer to a person older than you by even one year as "older brother" or "older sister", not by their first name.  Teacher's are ALWAYS addressed as "Teacher" or "(name) Teacher".  So my kids always call me Luke Teacher or Teacher.  Never Luke.

In fact while playing that rude game, one of my students started to address me and began with "teacher" out of pure habit.  He blushed but before he could try again I told him to shut up which made everyone laugh since it was the object of the game.  But I find it very significant that even in a game designed expressly to allow rudeness, Korean kids have trouble overcoming the conditioning of both the society and the language.

Can you imagine this in America?  Especially amongst men, rude and sarcastic interactions are so routine that politeness is greeted with surprise and often concern.  In the US this game might be reversed to see who could address the others in the most polite and courteous way possible.

When you realize that manners and proper forms of address are so important to Koreans that their very language is built around them, you begin to see the advantages and disadvantages it brings.  On the plus side, it produces a very polite society.  Respectful of elders.  Not prone to demonstrations, disruptions or questioning authority.  And this is also part of it's downside.  Questioning authority can lead to either trouble or to progress and improvement.  Because it isn't comfortable or acceptable to question your social superiors here, innovation and creative thinking is stifled.

I could give examples like how this is part of the reason that a revolution in North Korea is extremely unlikely or the trouble it causes Expat works when we arrive (Being polite to my boss is one thing.  Thinking of them as my social superior is something I am NOT prepared to do).

However, ultimately the freedom to question authority is also the freedom to encourage creation and innovation.  It's up to each society to decide how much they want to embrace that freedom. And I think we can safely say which way America went on that choice.  Whether that is a good or bad thing I leave up to you to decide.

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