Friendship, Confucian style

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Friendship, Confucian style

The following is a tip on traditional Korean language and customs in response to a query from a Mr. Kerry, who wrote to us from Miami, Florida:

Q. Mr. Kerry:
Two months ago, I visited Korea for a week to work with Korean musicians. I really enjoyed working and hanging out with Koreans, who were kind, generous and friendly.

One thing that bothered me, though, was that Korean guys told me that I “could NOT be friends” with a couple of Korean promoters whom I got along with very well. Because they were three, four years older than me, I should “pay respect” and “treat them like big brothers” and that I could “only be friends with guys who were the same age as me.” Everyone agreed that it was the “Korean way” that I should follow. That shocked me and made me wonder about what it takes to form a friendship in Korea. The Korean guys asked me to come back. I’d like to, but I think it will be challenging to live and work in Korea if I can’t become closer with people.

At home, I have friends of all ages who treat me as their best friends. Is there anything I can do to change this situation?

Quite simply, Koreans socialize differently from Westerners. First of all, chingu, or “friends” in Korean, does not mean the same as friends in English; chingu refers to one’s peer group, not the “Friends” found on the American TV show.

A casual mode of speech is used among people of the same age group, while some kind of honorific is used when people of different age groups talk. To determine which honorific, if any, to use, Koreans must find out a person’s age. If he or she is older, then that person is addressed as hyeong (man to man), oppa (woman to man), nuna (man to woman) or eonni (woman to woman), instead of by first name. Your friends were trying to inform you of the Korean mannerism, so that you, as a foreigner, wouldn’t come across as rude. Once the perfunctory social initiation period passes, Koreans get along wonderfully with people of different age groups.
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