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TL;DR – Age Differences in Korea

August 12, 2011


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This week’s TL;DR is an awesome question but it could easily make for a 20 minute video. We have, however, managed to compact it down to about 7 minutes. So the question asked was if you can be friends with people of different ages even though respect and obedience to elders in Korea is a must. In fact, even a year older is considered an age gap in Korea, and the constrains put upon you, because of this age gap, might make it a bit difficult to maintain friendships.

Okay, we’re going to try and explain Korean society in a nutshell via a non-rambley mini-history lesson…HEY! I SEE YOU TRYING TO SNEAK OUT THE BACKDOOR! GET BACK HERE! TURN OFF YOUR PHONE!!! SIT DOWN!!! Good. *ahem* So, Martina studied East Asian Philosophy in University and she’s very familiar with how Korean society (including the government and the family structure) is based on the teachings of Confucius (aka Kong Qiu/Kung-tzu or my personal favourite, Master Kong), who’s teachings and thoughts are now called Confucianism.

Confucius Say

Confucius Say: Respect Your Elders

One of his most important teachings was the importance of filial piety, aka respect a child should show to his/her parents, and this was broken into “Five Bonds” which basically explained how one should properly behave towards other people. In each of the five bonds, respect to those older to you was stressed over and over again. The teachings of these Five Bonds is very deeply ingrained in Korean society, and it is not even as a religion or philosophy, but just as a normaly way of life. This concept can be pretty hard to wrap your head around if you didn’t grow up in it, and – in turn – can cause you a lot of issues if you’re living in Korea and are wondering why the hell you’re being treated the way you’re being treated.

Okay, mini-history lesson is over. Class is dismissed…but Johnny, I’m keeping your cell phone. DON’T THINK I DIDN’T SEE YOU TXTING!!! *Quick Side Note by Simon* Didn’t Confucius say: “he who goes to sleep with itchy butt wakes up with stinky finger?” No? Ok, I’ll stop trolling now.

Cute Ajumma

Oh she looks so cute, doesn't she. WATCH OUT THOUGH!

So how does this affect everyday Korean life? We’ll give you a simple example. You might have heard about Ahjummas (older Korean women) power housing their way onto the subway and bowling over anyone and everyone in line to get a seat…yet, no one openly complains or says anything about it, while all the foreigners stand around shocked at the blatant rudeness. That’s an example of Confucianism in action: respect your elders NO MATTER WHAT THEY DO. Of course this teaching also affects Korean work life, such as younger employees diligently listening to a boss that has terrible ideas and not disagreeing with him even though they know his idea will crash and burn. This concept of respecting your elders no matter what can really be hard to wrap your head around if you didn’t grow up in a society based on these teachings. In fact, I’m pretty sure that in Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Outliers” he relates a story about a copilot for Korean Air who couldn’t correct his pilot, because of the importance of respecting your elders, and the result of this failure to correct the pilot, the plane crashed. DEATH BEFORE DISHONOUR! On a side note, looking over that last sentence, I could have sworn it said “death before dinosaur” It sure looks like it. Anyhow, supposedly now actions have been put into place so that these honorifics can be disregarded in the cockpit, because, well, it’s more important to not die than to be respectful, though we’re not sure exactly how well these actions can be put into place. If anyone know more about this please do share!

FML Jihoo

Dammit Jihoo! Put up a better fight will you?!

Now of course, their are many positive ways that it effects Korean society, such as deep bonds between family, loyalty towards friends, and respect for teachers and people in authority (which is probably why things aren’t vandalized and destroyed randomly in Korea). It also affects society in a more subtle way through honorific names given those older than you. These names let the rest of Korea clearly know, “hey, this girl is older than me” or “this guy is my junior and went to school with me” or “we’re close friends, but he’s still my elder”. There are some more difficult honorifics to grasp, like “Oppa” (오빠) – which we always have a difficult time translating in our captions, but basically boils down to a term a girl says to a guy older than her. It can mean “you are literally my older bother”, “you and I are dating”, “you and I are close friends”, “you and I have known each other for a long time and you’ve helped me out”, “I’m flirting with you”. Anyone who has watched a Korean drama has inevitable come across the confusion which is the honorific name system and probably thought at one point, “Wait, I though his name was Jihoo, not Seonbae.” ^^

Alright, this is getting into a TL;DR (< ---Too Long;Didn't Read) post, and we hope you've stuck with us so far, but let's do a wrap up: TL;DR - yes, it is possible to be friends with someone older or younger than you. Some Koreans don't care about the age gap for their foreign friends, but they might care when about it with their Korean friends. *gasps for air* Alright, we're ending it here, but please let us know your experiences with the honorific name system. We're always eager to hear experiences similar or different than our own.



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TL;DR – Age Differences in Korea


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  1. I’m 28 and I don’t drink. Never have Never will. The only alcohol I have ever drank was in NyQuil. I’m not gonna start just because I want to go to Korea Nor will I start just because I want to have friends. Is there any hope??

    7 years ago
  2. I know this was from a while ago, and you may not see this, but here is my take on why asking age is a touchy subject.  Youth is WORSHIPPED in the States.  So a younger person asking someone who looks like they might possibly be out of their 20’s how old they are is like pouring salt in an open wound.  It’s like saying, “Hey, look at how much older you are old person.  OLD!” It’s like calling a woman Ahjumma when she’s not.  Americans don’t want to be reminded that they’re older.  Years and years of conditioning by advertisers has taught me that the most desirable demographic is 18-35.  Unless you’re the fashion industry, then the ideal ages are 18-25.  This really kicked into high gear in the 1960’s when the youth culture took over America (and American advertising) 
    The result is that asking someone their age when they are obviously older, seems unnecessary, like rubbing youth in their face.  When it’s hard to tell, then that means they’re in the same generation as you, so it still seems like an unnecessary question, because if they fall within my generation then they are treated as peers.  People in their early to mid 20’s usually don’t mind being asked how old they are at all (they’re in that most desired demographic, why should they care?)  It’s when people get into their 30’s and often, late 20’s that they get uncomfortable.  It’s a lot more acceptable to ask someone younger than you how old they are.  If they’re younger than you it’s a compliment by default (You’re younger than me!  Congratulations on your youth!)  I have several co-workers that I’ve worked with for 7 years, and I still don’t know how old they are.  Somewhere in the 50’s is the best I can do.  I should add, this is a much bigger deal for women than men.  I was never uncomfortable answering the age question until I reached my 30’s.  Now I don’t mind answering that question in a one on one conversation, but if someone asked me my age at, let’s say a dinner party where 8 other people are listening in, I’d find that VERY uncomfortable. 
    My standards for first time conversation are “Tell me about yourself” or if we have a mutual friend, “How do you know Spudgy (or whatever the friend’s name is)?” or something to do with our location and what prompted them to be there.  For example, if we’re both at a club listening to a band, asking them when they became interested in the band.  If we’re both at a fundraising event, asking how they got involved with that particular event.  Basically I’m looking for their story, and looking for similarities with my own.  

    9 years ago
  3. “Wait, I though his name was Jihoo, not Seonbae.”  Ha!  That’s exactly how I found out about all of the honorifics and Jondaemal and Banmal.

    9 years ago