Friday, September 28, 2012

How to Address Others in Korean

호칭 • 이름 부르기

Question today comes from Mark in Canada:
I heard Koreans do not call older people by their names. Then how do you address each other? How about in professional relationship such as colleagues or your clients?


First of all, it helps to know that Korean language is based on their culture of respect to each other and honoring older people as well as those who are deemed to be wise.

So what does this mean?

Until you know that you are allowed to, you do not address anyone by their first names. Period.
A: How do you do? I am John Smith.
B: How do you do, Mr. Smith? I am Mary Taylor.
A: Glad to meet you, Ms. Taylor.
B: Pleasure is mine.
A: 안녕하세요. 저는 죤 스미스입니다.
B: 안녕하세요, 죤 스미스 씨. 저는 메리 테일러입니다.
A: 반갑습니다. 메리 테일러 씨.
B: 저도 반갑습니다. 
Given that the translation above is not word-for-word, the bottom line is this: there is a string of protocols you comply with when addressing each other to pay minimum respect to another human being.

The Korean "addressing and title" system is quite intricate and culturally sensitive. While there is a standardized guide book on Korean linguistic etiquette (언어예절), in many cases what the book says is not what really is in real life, especially for older generation, and even more so for near-extinct pure Seoulites.

Without going into too much detail, here's a list of few things students of Korean and language and culture must know:

  1. If family, use titles that reflect your relationship with each person.
    • 아버지 (father)
    • 어머니 (mother)
    • 형 (older brother, used by a younger male)
      오빠 (older brother, used by a younger female)
    • 누나 (older sister, used by younger male)
      언니 (older sister, used by younger female)
    • 삼촌 (uncle)
    • 고모 (paternal aunt)
      이모 (maternal aunt)
    • For more Korean Family & Relative Titles, click here.

  2. In professional settings such as workplace, you use the occupational title(직함). You shall not use first name but only full name or family name, followed by 직함.
    1. Title only
    2. Full Name + Title
    3. Family Name + Title

      • 선생님, 김철수 선생님, 김 선생님 (Teacher)
      • 교수님, 홍누리 교수님, 홍 교수님 (Professor)
      • 이사님, 윤진이 이사님, 윤 이사님 (Director)

  3. For a stranger or those whose names you do not know, use "general titles". The common ones are:
    • 할아버지 (male senior)
    • 할머니 (female senior)
    • 아저씨 (older male, usually in their late 30s or older and married)
    • 아주머니 (older female, usually in their late 30s or older and married)
    • 아가씨 (single female, usually in their 20s and early to mid-30s)
    • There are many "general titles" depending on age groups you talk to, or age groups who talk to you. It's the safest that you ask others how you should address them.

  4. You never utter older persons' names. Period.
      • If this is a professional setting, you will be allowed to say their names in many cases. Still, you need to be cautious. You will learn the business etiquette when you take business training course. For now, try to find their titles, and use their titles only.

        Example: If the Deputy Manager's name is 김철수 who is 40 years old and you are 30 years old, then you do your best to avoid saying his name. Immediately find out his job title - 대리 in our example (Please see related post regarding Korean occupational titles). Once you find out his title, you will address him as 대리님. If you need clarification in a conversation, then you can say 김철수 대리님. But if it's not necessary, completely avoid saying his name.
      • If this is not a professional setting, then you need to find a way to address him somehow. This takes a little bit of conversation. Until you learn this sensitive culture, you can say 김철수 아저씨. You can even say 김철수 아버님 if he is old enough to be your father. The same goes with female.
      • If all else fails, call him/her 선생님. While 선생 means a teacher, it also means "someone who was born before me," hence possessing more wisdom and experience in life. It is appropriate to call others 선생님 when they are supposed to be wiser and have more life experience than you do.

    1. In semi-professional and professional settings with people of your similar age group, 씨 is the most common. This is the least you can do to show your respect to another human being. It is roughly equal to Mister, Misses, Miss, and Ms.

      In using this post-fix, you do NOT use family name unless you mean disrespect. Say full name or first name only, followed by 씨.

      1. Full Name + Title
      2. First Name + Title (if you established such relationship)

        • 김철수 씨, 철수 씨

      There are conditions to this etiquette.

      Remember when I said you shall not address anyone by their first names until you know that you are allowed to? This is one of those cases. In order to address others with first name + 씨, you'd better have a kind of relationship that you can use first names without offending that person.

      Then, you may ask "how do I know if I can use his first name + 씨"?

      Break ice. Get to know that person. Have a glass of beer together. Get to know each other even more. Then one day you BOTH will feel that it's appropriate to drop family names. Before you actually do, ask him if it is okay to call him by his first name + 씨 (example: "김철수 씨. '철수 씨'라고 불러도 돼요?") If the other person does not feel comfortable about it, or if it is inappropriate for you to use his first name, you will be told. Don't feel offended; simply keep calling him 김철수 씨 or other suggestions he/she made.

    2. When can we use first names?

      You can use first names if the person is

      (1) exactly same age as you are or younger; and (2) you two are close enough to use first names with each other.


      (1) significantly younger than you are, such as a child, and (2) not in a position that needs to be "honoured".

      Lastly, how do we know if we are "close enough" to use first names of each other? The answer is simple: when you feel that you and your friend are close enough, you will end up asking if it's okay to use first names with each other. That's when. 

    I am aware this is not an easy-to-follow rules. But c'est la vie. C'est la vie coréenne.

    Final advice: this is as simple as it can get.

    When Koreans meet you for the first time, and even after the first encounter, one of the first questions they ask will be your age. Do not feel offended. Koreans need to know how old you are to decide how they will address you with utmost and appropriate respect. Age is the easiest tool to figure it out.

    When someone is talking about himself or hands you a business card, pay close attention. See what their business cards say about their occupation titles. Is he a teacher? Then you will call him 선생님. Do the business card says 상무? Then you will call her 상무님. You can't figure out, but does the gentlemen look like a grandpa with 12 great grandchildren? Call him 할아버지. Are you taking classes with Mr. Smith who looks about your age? Then you call him 스미스 씨. Do you need to address me? Call me 윤 선생님.

    과제 | Assignment

    1. 선생님과 친구들의 이름을 불러 보십시오.
      Address or call your teacher and your friends.
    2. 가족들을 불러 보십시오.
      Address or call your family members.
    3. 직장 동료들을 불러 보십시오.
      Address or call your colleagues.

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    1 comment:

    1. Although nowadays teachers do not get half the respect they used to get, the deep respect in this honorable occupation has not changed. Hence, age does not matter; Koreans use honorific in full when talking to/about teachers.

      Culturally it sounds nothing but disrespectful, to the point of insult, not to use full honorifics to 선생님s. Use of honorifics to teachers is not to a person (although it will come out to be that way) but to a noble occupation they hold.

      Example: I often assist seniors in their 60s through 90s - my parents' and grandparents' ages. They know that one of my occupations was/is a teacher, and they talk to me with full honorifics. That does not mean they think I am above them; it simply means they RESPECT my being a teacher and me as a teacher.


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