Tag Archives: level of speech

반말 vs 존댓말

Well, it’s been quite a while since I’ve posted any lessons and I thought it was about time that I do something about it.  Most writers would take this opportunity to explain why they’ve been away for so long, but I’m not going to bore you.  I could tell you I’ve been busy.  I could tell you “it’s not you, it’s me.”  But those would be lies.  Truth is, I just don’t care about you very much.

For English speakers, there seems to be a lot of confusion about the appropriate use of 반말 (frequently called “informal”, “intimate”, or “blunt” speech).  Many people who learn Korean in schools, institutes, or other formal settings learn 존댓말 (polite speech) quite well, but get very little opportunity to practice 반말.  Others, who learn primarily from friends and peers, learn nothing but 반말 and then make asses of themselves when they try to address someone who is clearly older or higher in social status.  This is a shame.  And, yes, it makes you suck at Korean.

This is a huge topic and it would be impossible to cover this in one lesson alone, so I’m going to start off with some “theory” behind it all.  I’m not going to cover the mechanics of verb endings in 반말, nor will I be fleshing out the differences between forms of address.  Instead, I just want you to sit back, relax, and take in some important information about levels of speech in Korean.  God knows you need it.

Before I begin, I’d like you to keep in mind something important.  Even Koreans have a hard time with this.  This is so important that I’m going to reword that sentence and try to make my point again.  Even native Korean speakers can have difficulty determining the appropriate level of speech to use in conversation.  It’s not like there’s some hard-and-fast rule book that Korean school children memorize during their youth, illuminating every possible combination of speaker and listener so that the appropriate level of speech can be determined for each and every conversation that could ever take place.  So don’t give yourself a hard time if you have trouble figuring this stuff out.  So do Koreans.  And they don’t suck half as much as you or I do.

So here’s my overarching theory on determining the appropriate level of speech to use.  It’s not really my theory, per se.  And it’s probably not original.  I’m sure I’ve come up with this by simply pushing together the bits and pieces of other people’s hard work.  But here goes.

There are four factors which you must consider in determining which level of speech to use.  

  • difference in age between speaker and listener
  • difference in social status between speaker and listener
  • psychological distance between speaker and listener
  • environment in which conversation is taking place

These four factors are not “yes/no” or “on/off” switches.  They are axes along which the dialogue may slide and move about.  Some are a bit more rigid and others leave a little more room for flexibility.  The point is to think of the entire dialogue in context.  The level of speech is not determined by one variable alone.  You need to consider a number of things, and this is why even native Koreans don’t get it right all the time.

Difference in Age between Speaker and Listener.  If all else is equal, your age relative to the listener will determine the level of speech to use.  If you are in your twenties and start a conversation with an elderly Korean man, you are the 후배 (junior) and he is the 선배 (senior).  No question about it . You will address him using 존댓말 and he may address you using 반말.  But the age difference does not need to be large.  If you meet someone for the first time and learn that they are one year older than you, then you should definitely be using 존댓말 when you speak to them.  And it’s perfectly acceptable for the person you just met to use 반말 with you, if they choose.

Koreans are obsessed with people’s age, and for good reason!  It is such an important part of establishing conversational tone.  This is why Koreans will almost always ask you how old you are when you first meet.  It’s a common question that’s built into normal introductions.  Sometimes it takes different forms, though.  One person may come right out and ask you for your age.  Others will ask what year you graduated high school or college.  Koreans have nearly turned this into an art form — with a million clever variations of questions that only serve to determine the listener’s age.

Remember, though, that you must choose your level of speech based on the context of the entire conversation (all four axes).  Age is only one part of the calculus involved.

Difference in Social Status between Speaker and Listener.  If all else is equal, your social status relative to the listener will determine the level of speech to use.  Imagine you’ve been working for a Korean company for the past four years.  If you are introduced to someone who is higher in rank or job title than you are, then you are the 후배 and the other person is your 선배.  If you’re both the same rank in the company but he joined the company one year after you, then you would be the 선배 and he would be your 후배.

Easy, huh?  The problem is in the context of the conversation, because there are always more variables involved.  What if you are higher ranking than the listener but he is clearly much older than you?  What then?  (Hint: You should probably both be using 존댓말 until you mutually agree to drop the formal endings.)  What if you work for different companies with entirely different organizational structures?  Who’s higher ranking?  Don’t know?  Well, then let’s find out who’s older!

Remember, you choose the level of speech based on several variables, not just one.

Psychological Distance between Speaker and Listener.  Okay, this is a little trickier to explain.  This axis ranges from ‘Complete Stranger’ at one end all the way up to things like best friends, intimate lovers, and family members at the other.  This is essentially how “close” you and the listener are.  And it can completely trump the age and social status factors already discussed.  For example, I once met a young lady who owned a tiny little coffee shop in Seoul.  She was in her twenties and I was in my mid-thirties.  But we had mutual interests and soon became good friends.  It wasn’t long before we were speaking to one another in 반말.  I was older than her, so if we hadn’t been close, she should have been using 존댓말 with me.  I, being older, had a slightly more established and traditional career, so my social status would have also demanded that she address me with 존댓말.  However, once we became friends that changes.  Friends don’t speak to one another in 존댓말.  Work colleagues do.  Acquaintances do.  But not friends.  Friends use 반말.

Level of speech in Korean is such a strong indicator of psychological closeness that it is, literally, a precursor to becoming friends.  If I had never invited my new friend to drop the formal ending when she spoke to me, we wouldn’t have become friends at all.  Likewise, if I had continued to address her using formal speech, it would have been a clear indicator that I intended to keep a certain measure of psychological distance between us.  So, not only does the level of speech indicate the psychological distance between speaker and listener, it can also determine it.

Environment in which the Conversation Takes Place.  Just as psychological distance can override considerations of age and social status, the environment where the conversation takes place can make the appropriate level of speech rise or fall.  Consider the example above of my friend in her twenties, me in my mid-thirties.  Even though we were friends and completely comfortable using 반말 with one another, there are many situations where it would be inappropriate to do so.  As I mentioned, she owned a coffee shop and I would often stop in from time to time, sometimes bringing along work colleagues or other friends who are roughly the same age as I am.  In this situation it would be inappropriate for her to walk up and address me using 반말.  In the context of this situation, she was the service provider (albeit the proprietor as well) and I was the customer.  Furthermore, the fact that I was with several others who were also older than her dictated that she use 존댓말 in this situation.

Now, imagine that one day we decide to meet at a nearby department store.  I arrive to find that she is finishing up something else with several of her friends — all of whom are younger than I am.  You might think that because she is younger, and because I could be considered socially higher in status, that it would be perfectly acceptable to use 반말 with her in this situation.  I mean, we’re really good friends who use 반말 all the time, so what’s the problem?  The problem is the context of the conversation.  Imagine what her friends would think about an older guy walking up and speaking to her in such a blunt or intimate manner.  It would probably imply a much closer (i.e. physical) relationship which was not the case.  Instead, the polite thing would be to use 존댓말 while her friends were present and then shift down into 반말 once it was just me and her again.

Now I’m a caucasian, an obvious foreigner, so I could probably get away with this sort of faux pas.  Her friends would just think I didn’t know any better.  But I should know better.  And if you don’t want to suck at Korean, you need to know better, too!

This principle can work in the opposite direction as well.  Let’s consider colleagues who work together in a small office setting.  Imagine a setting where there is a section chief and several worker bees all working in the same open office space.  They see each other every hour of every day, interacting with one another throughout the course of normal business.  Although the junior employees should, according to the other rules, be using 존댓말 with the section chief, they might, instead, be using 반말 — and that’s okay!  People who work closely together like this frequently use 반말 with one another, and it’s not the least bit out of place.  It shows familiarity and a certain closeness.  If, however, the Department Head pays a visit to the office, you can guarantee that the junior employees will all be using 존댓말 with both the Department Head and the Section Chief.  Why?  Because the presence of the department head changes the context of the conversation and demands that a higher level of speech be used between speakers and listeners.

We’ve covered a lot of info here and I want you to take time to digest this.  We’ll cover other elements of 반말 in future lessons but, for now, I think you deserve a break.  As you go about your day and engage in conversations, I want you to think about the four factors I outlined above and think about what level of speech would be appropriate in each situation.  Remember, you need to consider the entire conversation, composed of the following four areas:

  • difference in age between speaker and listener
  • difference in social status between speaker and listener
  • psychological distance between speaker and listener
  • environment in which conversation is taking place

It’s a lot to take in, but once you get the hang of routinely considering these four elements, choosing the appropriate level of speech will get much, much easier.  Good luck!  (You’ll probably need it!)