South Korea is an incredibly beautiful country that has an advanced economy and a very rich culture. If you’re planning on traveling there for pleasure or for doing business, your interactions with Koreans will be memorable. Koreans are warm people that value cohesiveness and unity and will do their best to make you feel welcome and at home. Korean culture is collectivist, which means that individualism is essentially something that’s unheard of and everything is done for the greater good and for the benefit of the whole community instead. This culture is clearly manifested in the Korean language and small language errors could easily offend. This is something you’ll want to avoid. In this post, we take a look at some reasons why Koreans avoid using “I”, “me”, or “you” and how this is ingrained in their culture.
Considered one of the most precise phonetic systems, Hangul was created by King Sejong the Great. The alphabet consists of 14 consonants and 10 vowels and was designed to “mirror” the shape of the sound made in the mouth. Another interesting thing about Korean characters is the fact that they were initially based on Chinese. However, due to the fact that the dynasty at the time wished all for all people – both poor peasants and the rich alike – to be able to read and understand each other, Hangul was created. What’s fascinating about Hangul is the fact that community spirit, unity, and cohesiveness are ingrained in the language. This is why, although there are words for “you” and “I” in Korean, these are generally not used, or only used among middle-aged couples talking to each other.
The value of unity is evident in all walks of Korean life. Koreans have a difficult history due to the Korean War, and unification among the people is one of the greatest cohesive forces in the country. This is reflected in both political and economic spheres of life and even in personal life, too. This is why no one in Korea will say “my” country, but will rather use “우리” (Uri) to refer to “our country” instead. From jimjilbangs (sex-differentiated bathhouses) to communal eating and sharing of meals, Korean culture is collectivist and no foreigner should forget this. This means that most things are done together, for the greater good, while ensuring that communities are better off on a larger scale rather than focusing on individual circumstances that may be outliers in the general scheme of things.
Differences with the West
In the West, collectivism is relatively unheard of with the individualistic, and relatively self-centered culture that’s prevalent there. It’s common to refer to “my mother”, “my husband”, “my sister”, and others when talking about a member of your family. Not so in Korea. In Korea, it is considered ego-centric to refer to something as “yours” or “mine”. This is why “Uri” is such an important element of the Korean language. It reflects community and sharing, even when it sounds odd to a Westerner, who may wonder why their colleague is referring to “our husband” or “our wife”. In Korea, it is considered that you are not the only person with a husband or wife, and that is why “Uri” is used to denote a commonality among people.
Even among friends, the term “Uri” is used to refer to commonly shared characteristics and factors such as brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, friends, etc. Age is another crucial element, even among friends, as your age will determine the appropriate title you will be given. From “older sister” or “older brother” to “younger sister” or “younger brother”, each person in a relationship is identified according to their hierarchical structure in the society.
In the business world, it is also common to refer to aspects such as “our colleagues” or “our company” to indicate community, cohesiveness, and unity. This language factor is translated in all walks of life and as a business person doing business in Korea, it would be wise to take cognizance of these community and cultural factors so that you avoid insulting or offending, or at the very least, sounding ego-centric.
The role of translation services
When it comes to translation services and the Korean language, it should then come as no surprise that Korean culture prevails in the written form, too. A strong translator and translation services, in general, will be aware of these cultural differences and will ensure that they are accurately conveyed in the translation project at hand. From using the correct titles to refer to individuals to correctly conveying the unity that “Uri” signifies in the culture, a translation company will be best positioned if they are aware of these factors that are so crucial to Korean society.
Korean culture is exceptionally rich and valuable. And this is apparent in nearly everything a Korean does. From their relationships with their family members and friends, all the way to a professional relationship at work, this culture is carried forward and ingrained in the Korean language, which is used on a daily basis. This is why when meeting South Koreans for the first time or undertaking a translation project from Korean to another language, these small but significant cultural aspects should be accurately translated as well. Using “Uri” or “we/our/us” to denote a common and shared sense of unity is a deeply ingrained cultural element that one would be wise not to ignore. Likewise, in dealing with people on a day-to-day basis, it should now come as no surprise why “Uri” is used to denote things, which would be considered somewhat strange in the West.