I was wondering why when you first meet a Korean, you can't casually call them by their first names. I've become acquainted with this guy on a professional level and we've talked on several occasions, but he has never addressed me by my name – come to think of it, I don't think he's ever asked what it was – even though he's pretty much asked every other question about me. Is it just this weirdo or is this a common Korean code of conduct?
Confused Korean American Chick
The person you are dealing with is certainly not a weirdo. Not calling first name is a common Korean code of conduct, particularly in a professional setting. In fact, doing otherwise is extremely rude.
Confucianism is too often used to explain away Korean culture, and the Korean thinks it is unjustifiably overused. However, at least this much is clear: Confucianism envisions a society with a clear hierarchy. Every individual in the society has a rank, determined by age, family relations, or social status. People’s interaction every day must involve signifiers that remind each person where they stand in the society. Usage of one’s name, as such, is one of the most important signifiers.
In Korean manners, being able to use someone’s first name either meant very close intimacy or extreme superiority. Therefore, relatively few people may call you by your first name. Here is the list of those people: your parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts; your older (but not younger) siblings; your close friends of the same age or older; your owner (if you are a dog, cat, or other pets, or a slave in the old days.) That’s it.
On the other hand, here is the list people who can NEVER call you by your first name: your younger siblings; your children, nephews, nieces; your in-laws, regardless of age; your co-workers, regardless of rank; anyone who is younger than you, regardless of how close they are to you.
How would these people call you? For families and extended families, there is a particular term for each relation. For example, the Korean Brother (younger) has to call the Korean hyeong, the term for “a man's older brother”. (Although he rare does nowadays - the Korean Brother has gotten uppity ever since the Korean Family moved to America.) The Korean Sister-in-Law (older) has to call the Korean doryeonnim, the term for “a woman’s younger brother-in-law.” Yes, it’s that specific – men and women have different terms for each position in the family tree.
For people met through professional acquaintance, the correct term is to use the person’s last name, followed by his rank or profession. Thus, if you are a manager (bujang) whose last name is Kim, you would be called Kim bujang-nim. (nim is an honorific, which makes the whole thing translate to “Manager-Sir/Madam Kim”.) If you are an owner of a store whose last name is Kwon, you would be called Kwon sajang-nim. (sajang means “owner of a business,” so you are being called “Owner-Sir/Madam Kwon”.)
(An aside: unlike U.S., an attorney is a respected profession in Korea. Therefore, a lawyer whose last name is Lee would be called Lee byeonhosa-nim (“Attorney-Sir/Madam Lee”). Among Korean American attorneys, a convenient acronym of BHSN is used in emails. However, what would one do in a Korean law firm to show the rank? After all, everyone in a law firm is a lawyer, but managing partner of the firm has to be differentiated somehow. Answer: at least in the case of the largest law firm in Korea, the managing partner is called “Dr. Kim” (Kim baksa-nim), so that he can be signified as being “higher” than ordinary BHSNs.)
So, here is an important piece of business etiquette in meeting Koreans. Like any other business meeting, people would shake hands and introduce each other’s first and last name, sometimes exchanging business cards. But after that, first names are not to be uttered. This is so important that the Korean will repeat again. Never, never, never, never, never, NEVER use a Korean person’s first name in a business meeting. Dropping your pants and pissing in the person’s briefcase would be only a little ruder than calling him/her by his/her first name. Recount the people in the “okay to use first name” category – they are all family or close friends, except the “dog owner” category. When you just met a person for the first time, you are neither family nor friend. So guess what calling them by their first names mean?
(However, because contemporary Koreans are familiar with Americans’ barbarian habit of calling people by their first names, it may be ok if the Korean businessperson with whom you are meeting explicitly tells you to call him/her by his/her first name.)
Here is a bonus point: the word for “you” follows the same rule as first names. So watch out for whom you call neo or dangsin – in a wrong situation, the word “you” in and of itself could be a swear word. So instead of, for example, saying “I like your idea” in a business meeting, Koreans would say “I like Kim baksa-nim’s idea” (while speaking to Kim baksa-nim, or Dr. Kim, as if they are talking about someone who is not there.)
There is one important group that was not covered – what about husbands and wives? Traditionally, they did not call each other’s names either. Instead, they called each other yeobo, the term that is still in use in modern Korea, translated as “honey” or “sweetie”. However, the etymology of yeobo is definitely not as romantic as "honey"; the term originally means, “look here”. Yup, Koreans knew all about romance.
Another traditional term is dangsin, which simply means "you", although this term is used in more intimate situations. (Almost all "you" in old Korean pop songs are dangsin, while new Korean songs tend to use neo or geudae more often for "you" -- an interesting development.) Alternatively, after having children, husbands and wives often call each other as their children’s father and mother. That is, if a child’s name is Jinyoung (a solid, unisex name), the husband may call his wife Jinyoung umma (Jinyoung’s mom), and the wife may call her husband Jinyoung appa (Jinyoung’s dad). Romance all the way, those Koreans.
However, modern times have a way of changing traditions. So while many husbands and wives still use the old terminology, still others go on a first-name basis. (Because your spouse is your best friend!) Or others retain their terminology while they dated. Thus, (because women tend to be the younger one in a relationship,) many younger wives call their husband seonbae (“class senior”, the term for anyone who went to the same school before you did,) or [first name]-ssi (“Mr. [first name]”, the catch-all term for all other ambiguous situations, often happening during dating scenarios.) Or – horror of all horrors to purists like the Korean himself – some young wives carry on calling their husbands oppa, women’s term for calling older brother or men who are a little older them.
Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at firstname.lastname@example.org.