THE FINE LINE BETWEEN FORMAL AND CASUAL TALKING IN KOREAN
We’ve just learned that age determines the relative hierarchy between people and how they interact with each other, but there’s one more thing that needs to be adjusted – how they speak to each other. If you watch Korean dramas, you must have noticed that Koreans use different forms of speech in different situations, but might have found it difficult to fully understand what was going on because all the subtle nuances tend to get lost in translation, leaving you wondering: “Okay… Why does the husband speak informally to his wife while she speaks in an extremely formal way?”, “They all seem to be the same age, but why do some speak formally to another while some don’t?”
To begin with, there are two main types of speech. jondaetmal 존댓말 (“polite/formal speech,” which typically ends in ~yo, ~nida, ~kka?) is used when talking to someone older, higher in rank, strangers, and anyone who you aren’t close to (even if you are the same age), but it can also be used to someone way younger, like an elementary school kid and someone way lower in rank, like a high school intern, should you choose to be formal and polite, and show respect. There is a similar concept in other languages, such as “tu vs. usted” in Spanish and honorifics used in Japanese, but the Korean system is far more complicated because it involves a myriad of honorifics to choose from, different personal pronouns which get “upgraded” and “downgraded,” as well as the verb stems that change constantly, depending on the person you talk to, and it’s a Rubik’s cube even for native Korean speakers.
Conversely, banmal 반말 (“informal/casual speech,) literally means “half-speech,” and it indeed requires fewer words to convey the same message (e.g., “May I please have a hot dog?” vs. “Give me a hot dog.”). Hence the colloquial expression, “Your speech is getting shorter.” This is an indirect way of saying, “Hey, are you dropping formalities with me?” Banmal can be used when talking to someone younger, the same age as you, lower in rank, or anyone who you have developed a sense of closeness and intimacy with.
Now, pay attention to how I said it can be used – just because you’re older or higher in rank doesn’t automatically give you the right to “drop the jondaemal.” A man of character would first ask the permission to switch to the informal banmal speech, not to offend the other person. Most of the time, the other person would gladly accept the request. Some think they are given the right to skip the recommended due process and jump straight to banmal, but this can be seen as rude and even condescending, sometimes leading to a full-blown brawl. In other cases, Korean people are straight forward with when to drop the formality – at a point when they have developed enough closeness, or for the sake of convenience when they realize that they are the same age, one could propose to “lower the speech,” or “drop the jondaetmal.”
Simply put, jondaetmal is used to show respect and politeness and creates a psychological barrier or social distance because it has restrictive feelings embedded in it, while banmal frees up the speaker so banmal indicates friendliness and intimacy and brings people closer. Noticing which form is used speaks volumes about a particular relationship, so pay special attention when switches are made as they indicate a change in the underlying relationship!
Let’s take a look at a K-drama example. Youngho and Sumi work at the same company and they felt an instant connection and were irresistibly drawn to each other when they first met. Not wanting to risk their professional career, they choose to stay professional and keep distance by talking to each other in jondaetmal. But the harder they try, the more difficult it gets – Youngho, who can’t hold his emotions anymore, gets soaked in soju and shows up at Sumi’s place, and Youngho surprises her by dropping the jondaetmal and speaking to her in banmal. Youngho, feeling liberated, wants to get everything off his chest and tells her about the feelings he has towards her and says he wants to be on the banmal basis with her, just like any other couple. Sumi nods in acceptance, and they are official. Of course, it can work the other way around too. It’s Youngho and Sumi’s 10-year anniversary. Instead of blowing candles and drinking wine, they are standing in front of the divorce court in Seoul. They must have grown apart and decided to go separate ways. Youngho says, “Sumi… Are you sure you want to do this?”, and Sumi replies, “Of course, Mr. Kim, that’s what we agreed on, isn’t it?” We can all see how Sumi reverted to using jondaetmal to Youngho, and it signifies that Sumi wants to keep a distance from him.
SOCIAL HIERARCHIES REPLICATED
It’s also interesting to learn that social hierarchies are wholly replicated and maintained through the spoken language, but some critics say it’s what creates the generation gap in Korean society. Take a case in point – Guus Hiddink, the Dutch football coach who took charge of the Korean national football team during the 2002 FIFA World Cup and brought the team to the semi-finals, pointed out that the driving force behind the unprecedented achievement was the dismantling of the strict hierarchy among the players, which he thought was hindering the younger players from making creative moves on the field. He ordered everyone to “drop the jondaetmal” and call each other by the first name, putting everyone on an equal footing to create an atmosphere of equality and solidarity, and it worked!
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What about family members? Many families allow children to talk in banmal to their parents, while many other families enforce a strict in-house rule requiring the children to talk to the parents in jondaetmal, but they usually switch to jondaetmal as they grow up. Between husband and wife, the husband usually talks to his wife in banmal, while the wife talks to him in jondaetmal, but it’s mostly because the husbands are typically older than the wife. Some husbands and wives, of course, opt to talk to each other in jontdaetmal, regardless of the age difference. The options are there, and you are the one to choose.