A note on Korean formalities (& dropping them) + Examples

*・゚゚・*:.。..。.:*゚:*:✼✿  ✿✼:*゚:.。..。.:*・゚゚・*

Hey guys! I was just thinking about formalities earlier and wanted to share my experience with different Koreans and dropping formalities.

Formalities are extremely important to the Korean language. 존댓말, or formal speech, should be used with people you don’t know, people who are older than you, or people who are in authority. 반말, or informal speech, can be used with people younger than you or with your friends. But the problem is that there aren’t clear lines here. HOW much older and HOW much younger? How do you know if someone is your friend?

A note from my korean friend

I asked her about a situation. For example, if I met someone who was 16 (I’m 20), would I use 반말 since she is younger, or would I use 존댓말, since she is old enough to be considered a peer? I was told that while I technically CAN use 반말 because she is younger, it isn’t very polite. My friend says that she always uses 존댓말 unless the person is significantly younger, like a child. She said polite people generally use formalities if someone is around their age. She usually also incorporates a small bow when she greets people, but told me that I don’t have to do that; it just adds an extra level of politeness.

But knowing this…when do you drop formalities? How do you know that you can? Essentially you just have to ask if it is ok; but the there isn’t any set time range for that. I want to share some of my experiences with different Koreans as examples ~

Person 1: Male, 23

I met him in a group chat. The chat used to be super active, so a bunch of us were all on every night. After about a month of this he asked my friend (age 26) and me how old we were. With our answers he immediately dropped 존댓말 with me. A few days later he randomly dropped it with her without asking. He never told me that I could drop 존댓말, so I kept it up for another month before asking if I could. His answer was ‘당근이지!’ I feel like his dropping them may have been insinuating that we too could drop them.

Person 2: Male, 25

As soon as he entered the group chat and started chatting with my friend and I he told us that we could stop using formalities. It was very confusing because we had just met him approximately 30 seconds ago. He just wanted to talk informally with everyone in the group chat. We kind of got the vibe that he just wanted friends though.

Still bizarre.

Person 3: Female, 30

I was actually asking her a question about formalities and dropping them with people younger, and all that. She said that it can depend on the person, but she never drops formalities unless she is told that she can. For example she is 10 years older than me but we didn’t drop formalities until this conversation. We were super friendly and talked a lot, but neither one of us asked about dropping formalities until this conversation.

Person 4: Male, 18

I used formalities with him since he is only 2 1/2 years younger than me. He also used formalities with me. He’s technically an adult and old enough to be a peer, so I was using 존댓말. In one of our early convos he asked my age, then told me his age, then we discussed birthdays and seasons. Two days later he asked my age again and when I responded he flat out told me I didn’t have to use 존댓말 because I am older. He was super chill and enthusiastic about it and then asked if we should be friends (another way that people ask if they can use 반말)

Person 5: Female, 22

This is my ‘in person’ Korean friend. At the time though I hadn’t met her in person; we had only texted. You see, my other friend had met this girl and said that I was studying Korean and gave her my number. We didn’t talk that much yet so I was using 존댓말, but she decided that we were friends and when she corrected my sentences she would correct them into 반말, saying like “You use ‘응’ with friends!”.

It honestly took me way too long to catch on to this guys, but I was terrified that I would improperly drop formalities so I ALWAYS used 존댓말. She’s honestly the sweetest thing I love her so much.

*・゚゚・*:.。..。.:*゚:*:✼✿  ✿✼:*゚:.。..。.:*・゚゚・*

As you can see, a lot of it depends on the person. Some of these people would be considered less polite than others. However as an American it is not my place to comment on it, as I don’t know the language or culture.

American culture is very informal, so being casual with people is not considered rude. This is just a cultural difference. But in Korea there is an understanding that suddenly using 반말 with someone without asking, or when you just met them, is considered rude. Even though the above situations varied, there was always something that preceded the 반말. They would ask my age, or tell me that we could drop formalities with them; they never just dropped them. It would be rude to just enter a group of people and speak informally, just as it would be considered rude to speak informally in person to one person whom you’ve never met.

Note: Even though that one Korean did tell us that we could drop formalities, I don’t recommend doing it. It all goes back to the fact that we aren’t Korean and should play it safe. If we were to do what he did it would be considered rude.

Even though dropping formalities depends on how polite someone wants to be considered, there ARE some rules!

1. If you meet a child you can use 반말

2. If someone is older, use 존댓말

3. If someone is in a position of authority, use 존댓말

If you’ve never met somebody, use 존댓말

I am no longer afraid of 반말, but I still want to be polite and respectful, so I always use 존댓말. I am of the opinion that they, as Koreans, deserve a little extra bit of respect. Because I am learning their language and they are helping me with it, so I am appreciative and want to show that through my speech.

My (non Korean) opinion is as follows: I will always use formal speech with someone who is around my age. Even if I’m not afraid of informal speech, I want to respect them as a person. I also would hate to go to Korea and be considered rude because I kept forgetting to use formal speech. I am only learning this langauge, and therefore want to show respect to the culture. To me, not abiding by their rules of formalities feels flippant and disrespectful. While Koreans all vary in the way they drop words, I prefer to play it safe and use 존댓말 unless told that I can do otherwise. Like Person #3! ^^

Honestly, I’m not sure what the takeaway is, here. I just remember how scared I was of accidentally offending someone, and hoped that by sharing my experiences I could help someone better understand how Korean formalities work.

Essentially, always start with 존댓말! If you’ve talked to someone and feel like friends, it is safest just to ask if it is ok to drop words. This is the proper way to do it ^^

~ Hannah

Published by Satyanghae Korean (Hannah & Shelbi)

We are just 3 students who wish to share the love and joy of learning Korean through lesson posts and translations! We are doing this for fun, based on our experience and questions we ask native speakers. We are not fluent! Just passionate  ~ Hannah, Shelbi, and Jordan

2 thoughts on “A note on Korean formalities (& dropping them) + Examples

  1. English has a level of formality depending on where you are and how you use it. But its so different from Korean.
    I know it’s not illegal, but you may still be digging your own grave if you pretend you’re friends with everyone.

    …but there is nothing more adorable than addressing children with formal statements and seeing them giggle and suggest you don’t.

    actually if you write a story, switching up how they treat something (how polite they’re being) you get an idea of their view toward them. You get an inside track as to their rudeness and disrespect.

    I knew about the three levels before. Formal, polite informal, and impolite informal. But there’s actually a fourth! Rude. Just flat out rude statements. And I was like O.o
    But it’s stuff we shouldn’t be saying to anyone ever.

    Liked by 1 person

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