If you are meeting someone for the first time in Korea, don’t panic if you are asked for your age at the very first encounter.
While straight-up asking someone’s age can be very personal and even offensive, there is a good explanation for this habit. As we previously covered, the yugyo-based Korean society is strictly hierarchical and puts a strong emphasis on the senior person’s roles and responsibilities of taking care of the junior in the relationship, while the junior is expected to show respect and discipline towards the senior in return. Hence, the “How old are you?” question is crucial in gauging and determining how one will interact with the new person.
One of the biggest perks of hanging out with older Korean friends is that they would often insist on paying for your meal. In return, you can show respect by setting the utensils and filling up the water glasses (many casual Korean restaurants have a “self-service” system where you have to do the table setting).
And there are always those mean-minded people who try to abuse the system – they would go as far as lying and overstating their age in an attempt to have the upper hand in the relationship, but it often gets found out by bumping into a mutual friend who is the same age. Another K-drama cliché.