(This post is part of the “Looking Past Korea” Series, my general wrap up on Korean culture. So far I’ve gone over superficial differences of Korea and cultural aspects that I think are over rated by foreigners. In this part I talk about the things that I think make Korea unique and different to Western Culture)
What is it:
Korea’s honorific system that is essentially a standardization of the way you speak to people. The form of honorifics changes from low forms, used for someone younger than you; middle forms, used for someone slightly older than you; and high forms, used for a person much older than you or for a superior at your job. Additionally there are different honorific words that should be used when speaking about someone who is considered above you in the social hierarchy. These words should be used whether or not the person you are speaking about is present. All in all it’s pretty confusing.
The odd thing with the honorific system is that while it influences respect towards elders, it does not stipulate it. This leaves open the possibility that younger generations might feel they could say anything to their elders, provided they use the right form of honorifics.
I doubt that will happen however as the honorific system has grown out of Confucian tradition which preaches a fervent respect towards elders and is fairly ingrained into the Korean psyche. I have seen very few instances where a younger person is telling off an older person, even if the older person deserved it.
Why it matters:
Those of you who have been paying attention might have noticed that I also mentioned honorifics as one of the cultural differences overrated by foreigners when they come to Korea. I am not back tracking, I think it is overrated. However, it is still important.
Honorifics are to Korea as Eminem was to hip hop circa 2002. Around that time Eminem was so noticeable that he was completely overrated by anybody who was superficially interested in hip hop, who thought he was the greatest rapper of all time. At the same time a back lash occurred in the underground against him because of his overrated popularity and the bandwagon fans he brought with him. Lots of people refused to acknowledge he had any skill whatsoever. This created an odd paradox where Eminem was simultaneously the most overrated and underrated rapper of the time.
This is what Honorifics is like. For any foreigner with a casual understanding of Korea, honorifics are the most noticeable difference so it is naturally deemed the most important. As is mentioned in my “Overrated Korean Culture” post, honorifics are not much different than how most people speak to other of varying age and status. We speak to our boss, our parents, our friends, our co-workers, everybody in different ways. Honorifics institutionalizes it. Besides, it is difficult for me to see honorifics as a too important when it is the result of a culture that preaches respect for elders rather than the cause of it.
But words can have power if we give them power and Korea has given them power. Korea has given honorifics the key to a hierarchical culture. Honorifics is the guard dog, it is the watchman, it is the spring loaded trap under a piece of Indiana Jones treasure. It guards and upholds tradition the same way a military guards and upholds a country. So while it is not the fundamental ideal of Korea it is its everyday application.
Existentialism demands that what we see is what is most important.