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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.

ToFebruary
  1. i actually met such ahjummas and they were really mean, not because they bumped my friend out of her turn but because we were on our way back to our home country and each of us had three or four luggages strapped to us and my friend had to shuffle like an old lady to the back of the line

  2. taigahime
    taigahime

    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??

  3. Dear Simon and Martina :)

    I was wondering if you can do a TL;DR on Korean age and how do you know/count your Korean age?

    Thanks :D

  4. How old are Martina and Simon, they never said their ages?

  5. Anonymous

    I need…help. I’m trying to write a story where a girl goes to Korea. What would she call a boy that she just met who is like 5-7 months older than her and they were born in the same year? And what would she call a guy she just met like not in school and he’s 2-3 years older? And what would they call her?

    Also, how would you write Lexi Valentine in Korean?

  6. Alyssa King

    All these comments and no love for the Flight of the Conchords reference? Business time!

  7. irritablevowel

    “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.

  8. This may be beyond your knowledge but I thought I would ask anyway. My husband is 6 years my senior, do honorific titles come in to play within the marital relationship?

  9. oh my god … using Boy over Flowers was beautiful to describe it.  And i totally knew all the Korean drinking things because my uncle was in the Korean War and taught me all this stuff.  I really impressed my dongsaeng’s hyung when we went out drinking.

  10. hejingcui

    What about if me and my unni (who isn’t related) are really close?
    Coz we’re korean-british, and we basically speak english to each other, apart from those few korean words and that i call her unni.
    She’s 2 years older than me, so should i still use formal language on her?
    But I known her for like nearly 7 years..?

  11. Hmm, what if your boss is younger than you are? How does the respect thing come into play?

    • You should still show respect to him as if he is a boss who is older than you, due to the fact that your boss is in a higher position then you are. Of course they will also show respect back.

    • You should still show respect to him as if he is a boss who is older than you, due to the fact that your boss is in a higher position then you are. Of course they will also show respect back.

  12. what is a 16 year old and 18 year old talked for the first time??
    the 16 year old has to be respectful??

  13. what is a 16 year old and 18 year old talked for the first time??
    the 16 year old has to be respectful??

  14. Anonymous

    i want all of Simon’s shirts!! THEY ROCK!! xD

  15. it looks easier to adapt the culture and the food and easier to fit in

  16. jelliekookie

    I’ve got a Korean friend that’s friends with Korean guys 5 years her senior, and they’re close. I’m also friends with a few older Korean guys…whom I call sunbae first then move on to oppa when we’re more comfortable with each other.

  17. Anonymous

    My in-laws are Koreans and it’s quite hard dealing with them. I’ve been living with them for about a year now and actually I’m so glad that I’m not Korean, because they tend not to blame me for some small cultural mistakes(they blame my husband instead…:/). Well, for me this all respectfulness seems positive in official relations(school, work, public places) but I dislike it being involved in family matters. The family “quarrel” is like the most pointless thing in Korean family, because the only ones talking, expressing their thoughts or feelings are parents(or grandparents n so on) while their kids just stare at own nails/floor thinking about something else. This definitely doesn’t lead anywhere.

  18. hey i know that this is not wtf but i would like for you to make more of thoes videos

  19. I got to know you guys because of kpop music mondays, but now I LIVE for your tl;dr segments! I sincerely hope that you guys make a segment for each of the week, even though I know what I’m asking isn’t plausible. :( LOVE YOU GUYS!

  20. i’m surprised that you guys didn’t say anything about dating a person in S.Korea with an age difference

  21. This is fine for folks visiting Korea but those living in Korea needs to be aware that deeper you integrate yourself into Korean society, deeper you will be expected to behave within its social hierarchy.

    If you are FOB foreigner who barely understand Korean, Korean people will make exceptions for your behavior. But if you talks and acts like a Korean, it could get kinda suffocating, particularly if you are just mimicking to be polite and don’t understand both the upsides and downsides of tightly woven social web.

    I think the advisable right balance is to appear as if wanting to integrate but doing a poor job of it. Also, timely forgetfulness or misunderstanding can get you over many awkward situations if you signal properly.

  22. Great TL:DR vid you guys! I’m planning to visit some co-workers in Seoul this year for my birthday. However my birthday is in October. I was wondering, what can you tell us about the weather in S.Korea? Is it as unpredictable as the weather in the UK/middle Europe? Also, any tips as a first time visitor there in regards to what books or travel guides we should pick up and read before I (we) head over there?

    • Minho Lee

      I think, October is most good weather season in Korea. You don’t need to worry about unpredictable weather… You just need a jacket, because it’ll very chilly in the night. I’m sorry I don’t have any idea about travel guide..but how about check this website : http://english.visitkorea.or.kr/enu/index.kto  Anyway, you are lucky, If you visited korea in October.

  23. Hm, I don’t think the honorifics were hard at all. Maybe because I knew Japanese honorifics before I got into Korean dramas and stuff. To me Japan and Korea seem similar in that way. Except Koreans are more complicated, having a few more honorifics and they seem to be more important. So because I learnt the Japanese honorifics first, they seemed harder to me.

  24. What do you do if you are a non drinker? Like seriously?

  25. lol old man from behind…I was thinking Diagon Alley.

  26. Does the grammar also change when you speak to a senior / junior? I remember when i was studying Japanese, there are three different grammatical forms, depending upon if you are talking to a junior, a peer, or a senior. This age difference concept is very hard for many people, because most offices encourage managers to be open so that junior staff members do not feel shy / scared about approaching them with problems. We are respectful, but all titles and honorifics are being done away with. 

    • well there are so many styles of speech in Korean. there are impolite forms, even different ways to say impolite forms, polite, really really polite forms (only used in jobs) and etc. in Korean verbs there are different endings attached to the verbs and that indicates tense, politeness, statement/question/command and etc. the root of the verb might change depending on the endings or the tenses, so yea there are a lot to memorize.
      For ex. for I love you, you can say saranghaeyo (I love you-polite), saranghamnida (more polite), saranghae (impolite), saranghanda (root form of the verb but also used in conversation), saranghetseo (I loved you-impolite), saranghetseotseumnida (I had loved you- really polite), saranghalgeoya (I will love you – future impolite) and much more….

  27. One of my best friends was born in Seoul  and moved here when she was 10-ish. She at first was very into the age differences, she would ask people how old they were everywhere….leading to some very awkward moments. SHE’S NOT NOSY..just interested in your age. >,<; However, now that she has been here for so long she curses them all out the same. haha. smh That girl. 

  28. I need to read all the Korean books I can before I even dare get on a plane there  8_8
    We also have this in our tradition, but it isn’t as strictly applied as the Korean version in terms of friendships between different ages.

  29. Last summer I met a girl who was here (Canada) from Korea on a sort of sabbatical of some sort. She said it was to learn English but there wasnt exactly a lot of English study going on. She was about 4 years younger than me and I know this was a bit uncomfortable for her because I treated her like a friend right from the start and she was very respectful of me and also very timid.

    She has since gone back to Korea (she was only allowed to stay here for a year on her work VISA). I felt we were really close during her time here. She even sent me an email after she left saying she really enjoyed our times together and she was very thankful. Now its been almost a year since shes been gone and I never get emails back from her. I think now that shes back in Korea she feels the pressures of culture again? :(

  30. crystal cabico

    what does an older guy call a younger girl? or an older girl call a younger guy? after the whole epic bonding moment, of course.

  31. Super-interesting, guys! I love the ways different groups have of making sense of each other. Organised humanity ftw. ^^

  32. That´s great. I really like (I´m addicted to) orange juice and I don´t like tomato juice at all. How lucky I am :)

  33. That´s great. I really like (I´m addicted to) orange juice and I don´t like tomato juice at all. How lucky I am :)

  34. Michelle Harry

    TL;DR (< —Too Long;Didn’t Read) <– ahaha…this is hilarious! but i finished it and love the little insane talk!

  35. Well I believe it’s easier for us Spanish speakers because we have ways of talking with respect or to people your age. It is easier to relate to Korean once knowing since young that you must speak differently and polite to elders and people you don’t know. =)

    • Portugal here. Yes, different way to speak with elder people. But it feels to me like Korea has tons of that, while in Portugal we just have to change the form of address a little bit, and that more formal way of speaking works the same for parents, uncles, boss, teachers, elder woman on the street. Easy to do when you get how to do it. Like “como te chamas ” – informal “what’s your name” changes to “como se chama” – formal.

  36. Dave Wossum

    So when I went to Korea for work I also had to meet my then girlfriend’s family while I was there. My, then GF, was back in the states and when I was out at the big dinner sitting across from her father he handed me a bottle of soju, I took it and poured my own glass and handed him the bottle back. Everyone at the table gasped and stared at the older patriarch to see what he was going to do. He just laughed. We are still married to this day. It turns out my wife purposely hid this tradition from me to show her family that I am from a different culture and that the Korean way is not the only way. 9 years later I pour his soju in the way he expects.

  37. 연준 인

    oh!!! one more thing!!
    In Korea, for twin brothers or sisters, even though they were born 2 seconds difference, they would be taught to respect the 2-second-first-born-twin(dunno the scientific term for this lol) it’s this serious and important here in korea lol

  38. 연준 인

    this just happened a week ago at an english academy that I go to… a new student came to our class…. when he introduced himself in front of the class, he said  that he lives in Canada and came here for summer vacation… just that…. and I thought he was “Canadianized” or “Americanized” so I thought he didnt care about that whole respecting the elders stuff so I said banmal to him(saying what koreans say among same aged friends) . two days later he came up to me and asked, “how old are you? you look younger than me … and I feel disrespected….” later I found that he’s eight months older than me …. I sincerely apologized and i use respectful words like HYEONG while having conversations with him now… haha

    • this is interesting.. the grey area..
      for foreigners, should we act like when we do with Koreans or is it okay to be ease up..

      one of my senior at university who grew up in France eased up to minors and let them talk to him “banmal”, and after other sonbaes found out about this they were furious and there was huuuuge drama… it was horrible

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