Politeness levels. 반말, 존댓말, 높임말.
Essentially, this is the socially appropriate form of language that is used depending on the situation. Think “Please” and “Thank you” times a million.
But if you think about it, we have this concept in English - just not as heightened. I feel that Spanish has a little more in common with Korean politeness levels. For that matter, dozens of other languages have this concept, right? Either way, it’s not an easy concept to transfer. In all honesty, this was probably the most difficult transition for me when first actually speaking Korean.
But like all things, I like to make a game out of it. Let’s pick one of my favorite genres, the RTS. In Company of Heroes, if you want to decimate a wondering group of Nazi soldiers, you deploy a marksman from the Allied barracks and place him in a tall building like a church or bell tower. National socialism problem solved. It’s basically a complex game of Rock-Paper-Scissors. All situations have a an easy way to achieve victory and conversely, all units have a weakness. To win, you must choose carefully which units you deploy and to which enemy units to attack.
Video game violence aside, this concept is just like conversing in Korean. One must quickly size up the enemy and deploy the appropriate
weapon politeness level. A rule of thumb is age but like all things Korean, things aren’t what they seem on the surface. Suppose a young Korean male signs up for the mandatory military service and has to serve under a higher ranking soldier who is a year younger than him. Go ahead and guess who gets to use 반말.
It is also completely possible to be too polite. If you’re trying to get closer to a friend that is close to your age, chances are that asking to use 반말 will make the two of you feel more comfortable. Then again, if a super-close friendship isn’t something that you really want, using 존댓말 is a subtle yet friendly way of maintaining your personal bubble.
Honorific speech is something that should be used whenever in doubt when meeting someone older. The whole asking for forgiveness is better than asking permission does not apply here - one can always eventually lower their speech level with minimal social faux pas; but being asked to raise your speech level is fairly embarrassing. I should know. I would like to take this opportunity to apologize to the entire city of 부산. Moving on.
I joke but I really feel polite speech is most important in Korea. It goes beyond changing the verb ending and a few vocabulary words here and there - it represents a profound sense of mutual social understanding and harmony. When things work the way the should, the social machine runs well-oiled and properly. Those seeking to make friends and do business are especially challenged when deciding what to use in each situation.
I’ve heard of many Korean language students that struggle with the informal-speech constantly being set in the “ON” position. I have the opposite problem. I seem to always have the standard switch on. I naturally want to speak 존댓말 with everyone - including kids and close friends. I struggle to remember “…oh yeah, duh. I forgot. He’s my roommate. I don’t have to use 요 with him…” or “…opps… this kid is like 13 years old. why am I using 요 with him?…”
Anyone have any amusing stories of misusing politeness levels? Do tell.