Written by Eun Kyng Seo, Ph.D., Licensed Professional Counselor(USA)
The first time I traveled to Hong Kong in 1996, I learned that asking age could be embarrassing in different cultures. In Korean society, age differentiates an individual’s roles and responsibilities, and this generates a rigid hierarchy system in family, work, and communities. If you have been in a Korean community, you might have experienced that elders have the authority to make decisions. Questioning their status and opinions can be considered as ill-mannered in Korean culture. Then, what can be the reason for this rigid hierarchy?
Korean society has been pervasively influenced by Confucianism, which strongly emphasizes harmony between relationships. Confucianism, founded by Confucius, a Chinese philosopher, defines social ethics, morals, and values to govern a society. Respect and obedience are the major social drives to operate a harmonious society.
Traditionally, Confucianism differentiated relational superiority and inferiority based on genders and ages, which defined an individual’s roles in family, work, and communities. Traditional Korean ethics taught relational inferiors (i.e., younger and/or female) ought to serve superiors (i.e., older and/or male) in communities. An example of showing respect to elders is that, during a meal, I was taught to only begin eating after the elders at the table had a bite.
Although the traditional gender roles or gender gap has been slowly dying out by the influences of Western culture, Korean society still adheres to traditional gender roles. What remains especially strong is the expectation that younger people will be respectful and obedient of their elders. For example, the Korean language differentiates the words used when speaking to someone older and younger. In addition, age differentiates an individual’s title, and calling older people’s names without their titles can be considered quite rude. For example, younger females call older males as “Oppa,” younger females call older females “Unni,” Younger males call older males “Hyung,” and young males call older females “Noona.”
Why do Koreans ask your age? It is because by asking about another’s age, Koreans find whether they are relationally inferior or superior so that they observe the expected etiquette.