Thor's Korea Diary

When Is It Rude To Be Rude?
Politeness Across Cultures and Subcultures

Professor KANG Uk-ky, whose enquiry first gave rise to this (very anecdotal)
, has now provided a Korean language translation

@1 June 2001

go to Korean language PDF version of "When Is It Rude To Be Rude" or normal html Korean version (web browser Asian fonts needed)


Other articles dealing with cross-cultures: "Cultural Operating Systems - Thoughts on Designing Cultures", 2010; Ethnicity and Racism - Stirring the Pot, 2005;"Senate Inquiry into the Status of Australian Expatriates", 2004; "Korean, American and Other Strange Habits - You Do It Your Way - two books reviewed", 2003; Individualism or the Group",2001; "The Price of Freedom - an Escape from Vietnam", 1984

Abstract: This paper deals with politeness phenomena which are general to all human societies, but draws many examples from Korea as understood by the writer (who is Australian). The emphasis in this analysis is on the problem of decoding politeness. It is noted that even within a culture, politeness signals can be manipulated, and that interlocutors calibrate their meaning according to knowledge of individual personalities. In Korean society, the requirement for formal politeness signals is very strong, both in body language and in fixed linguistic markers (such as verb endings). However, the pragmatic meaning of these signals is calibrated in ways that are difficult for foreigners to decode. The paper also considers the dilemma of that minority of Koreans who attempt to interact within the linguistic and social codes of English. It is noted that these attempts often go astray, both because the speaker misunderstands English politeness coding conventions and because listeners in English, almost by definition, come from radically different cultural backgrounds to the Korean.


The underlying principle of politeness is to preserve harmony by showing good intentions and consideration for the feelings of others. Every culture and every language has developed certain mechanisms to signal that speakers are or are not attempting to be polite.

Decoding intended politeness in any situation is complicated by the fact that standard mechanisms to show politeness may themselves be manipulated by speakers, and valued in various ways by listeners. The Korean language, for example, requires speakers to signal a certain level of formal politeness in every sentence. However, the fact that a speaker uses an apparently "polite" linguistic marker may not necessarily mean that the individual intends either politeness or rudeness. The usage may be entirely neutral and conventional. Furthermore, some individuals habitually use more, or fewer, "polite" language markers than others. As we come to know such people, we calibrate our interpretation according to our expectations of their behaviour.

A grumpy old man may seem extremely rude to strangers, yet be understood by his familiars to be a kind and well-intentioned person. Many years ago I worked for eight months as a dockyard labourer. The language of those labourers to an outsider would seem absolutely profane, brutal and rude. As I came to know the men, I understood that most of them were neither more nor less impolite within the norms of their group than, say, a faculty of university professors.

Operating across cultures, the interpretation of "real" politeness -- that is, the underlying substance rather than mere form (the conventional signals) -- is exceedingly difficult. This is because the cultural presuppositions held by each interlocutor may be radically different. Ideas of what is "good/bad", "honest/dishonest", "fair/unfair", and many other moral axes may vary greatly. For example, cultural signals of politeness by a man from one culture to a woman of another culture may be mis-decoded as intrusive, rude, hypocritical … and so on.

These problems have long been studied by linguists (though being merely dispassionate academic observers, they have been short on practical solutions!) : Coulmas (1981:8) noticed that "many routines, especially politeness routines, defy interpretation on the basis of word meanings alone and without knowledge of cultural habits, customs, attitudes etc." Indeed, the mere interpretation of routines is not sufficient for native-like performance. Because so many of these expressions are tied to conversational exchange, their manipulation is an instrument in power relationships, solidarity, and other social currency; (Tannen & Oztek, 1981:46).

Most foreigners working in Korea do not speak Korean with any useful fluency. This means that they verbally communicate with a small, select group of Koreans who speak English as a second language. They communicate with the general Korean public in a much more accidental and casual way, entirely through body language and the consequences of their actions. For example, in a supermarket queue a Westerner might move to physically block some woman who tries to push in front of him. To the foreigner such a woman would seem exceedingly ill-bred, and his body language might well show defiance or contempt. The meaning put on this event by the Korean woman would perhaps be beyond the Westerner's ability to interpret fairly.

The body language exhibited by Koreans forces foreigners to recalibrate their own expectations of politeness. For example, if I were to bow to either friend or stranger in Australia, my action could only be interpreted as satirical or humorous. It could easily cause offence by appearing to laugh at the other person's pomposity. On the other hand, the ABSENCE of a bow between Korean males would probably carry significant meaning. Bowing is so normal in Korea that the action itself may well have lost its force of signalling genuine respect or politeness.

Here is an example from my own workplace. Sungsim students are very well-trained in bowing to their professors. At one level -- that of form -- they are extremely polite. At the level of substance, or inner intention, that may not always be the case. Last week the captain of one of my classes was especially assiduous in all the forms of deference. However, ten minutes after the start of class his cell phone rang, he answered, then interrupted the lesson noisily, said he wanted to go and marched out "bowing", followed by his partner. All the forms of politeness did little to sooth my outrage at his rudeness.

The largest supermarket where I live in Bansong-dong, Aram Mart, is another venue where the forms of politeness seem to clash with the substance. Management has apparently instructed employees to bow and say "kamsa hamnida" every time they catch the eye of a customer. Frankly, at least to a foreigner, it wearying to have these mechanical dolls going through their routines with eyes like dead fish. They are not really talking to the customers. They never smile or show recognition. At the checkout counter they stand with folded arms while customers rush to cram groceries into bags (that would get them fired instantly in Australia). In other words the forms of politeness in this environment are a sham. They are not even good business.

The small group of Koreans who habitually communicate with foreigners in English are, of course, the Koreans most likely to be misunderstood by foreigners. Theirs is an especially difficult task, for by using the language code of outsiders, they are implicitly agreeing to communicate according to the cultural norms of those foreigners. At least, that is how their English utterances will be decoded by most English speakers (and not infrequently the "English speakers" themselves are Indonesian, or Vietnamese, or Chinese, or Bangladeshi …).

The more fluent of these English speaking Koreans may have spent some time in an English speaking country. In the eyes of their compatriots they are thereafter considered to be experts in both the linguistic and cultural norms of those countries they visited. They may even consider themselves to be so. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case. (Conversely, think of the many foreigners who have spent years in Korea and really understand very little about its history, culture or language. They go back to their countries of origin and can safely pose as "experts" -- thousands of kilometres from the scene of their ignorance).

I have worked as an expatriate for much of my adult life (in Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, China etc). I cannot think of a country or an employer where there have NOT been frequent examples of apparent rudeness by local administrative and teaching staff using English. Of course, some of these people HAVE been rude in both intention and form. Many others have simply misused the cultural and linguistic cues.

Work place cultures themselves differ a good deal internationally. The expected behaviour of employers and employees, and the accepted channels of communication may be a magical mystery tour for a newly arrived expatriate. Things seem to happen without warning, demands are made without explanation, and so on. It is easy for a foreigner to develop a certain paranoia about the apparent impoliteness of Korean (or other national) employers. Where institutions employ a number of foreigners, the outsiders naturally pool experience and will quickly build a profile of local employer intentions which may be less than flattering. As new foreigners arrive, this profile will be passed on to them, becoming a template by which the new arrivals measure the politeness and other behaviour of local Koreans.

All users of a language which is not their mother tongue are likely to make frequent errors of register (levels of formality, intimacy etc.). Even when a language has explicit markers for things such as politeness, the REAL meaning attached to their usage by native speakers is always both fluid and subtle. For example, it is one thing to read crude descriptions in a text book on Korean or Japanese about so-called honorific markers. To become a skilled, colloquial manipulator of such signals is a far more difficult game.

Although syntactic markers for politeness are unlikely to be easily diffused across languages and cultures (Korean and Japanese almost certainly share a single linguistic ancestor), it is rather common for politeness formulas, and even body language to spread widely. This can be very deceptive since the meanings which such formulas and actions acquire often have local overtones that are unique. Take for example, the custom of bowing (discussed above). This is well understood in a general way by Europeans, whose own customs a couple of centuries ago included bowing from the waist (now reduced to a nod of recognition). However, the Korean environment naturally has its own nuances, which are bound to include a subtle Korean etiquette on when to bow to whom, in what manner, and how to vary it for particular unspoken meanings.

The linguistic persistence of formulas has been occasionally noted by ethnographers, as in Ferguson (1981:32): "Politeness formulas, in so far as they constitute a folk literature genre similar to proverbs, riddles and nursery rhymes, tend to include archaic forms and constructions which have disappeared from ordinary speech..".

Not unrelated to this would be the diffusion of politeness formulas: Ferguson (1981:32) There is a "..strong tendency for the structure and use of politeness formulas to diffuse with other elements of culture across language boundaries. Thus, for example, a striking number of Arabic greetings and thank you formulas have spread along with Islam to speech communities which have not shifted to Arabic." Ferguson's particular example needs to be treated with some caution here. The expressions he refers to have almost certainly piggybacked on the special diglossic role of Arabic in Islam. The nearest contemporary English examples might derive from the ubiquitous products of Hollywood, along with America's commercial imperialism: hence : "have a nice day" ..etc.

Second language users of English may have extreme trouble in mastering its uses of register, politeness, intimacy signals etc. In fact, many otherwise fluent learners of English remain blissfully unaware of the social outrages they leave in their wake with poorly managed modal verbs, shifts in intonation, over-explicitness (where much should remain unsaid) and a dozen other fluid socio-linguistic mechanisms. Such things are almost never dealt with well in schoolroom textbook environments, are constantly shifting in the colloquial language, and cannot be explained explicitly by the vast majority of native speakers. In other words, linguistic impoliteness by L2 speakers is more or less unavoidable.

If errors of FORM are inevitable across cultures, how are the consequences of violations handled? As with the use of politeness markers, the responses invoked by their abuse varies amongst individuals, social classes, and whole cultures. In general those cultures which have felt threatened, geographically or politically or socially, tend to be very concerned with politeness forms and other markers of their identity. Koreans, for example, were renowned to be more zealously Confucian than the Chinese in behavioral forms. Having just lived for two years in central China, I have to say that this is frequently still the case.

Consider the question of public reputation. The great importance placed on what Koreans call kibun (preserving face) can mean that it is more important to exhibit the external signals of politeness than other moral values, such as speaking the truth. A Westerner who knows that he is being lied to is apt to feel greatly offended by the rudeness of a Korean (or anyone else) who places kibun above honesty. That is, he feels that he is being treated as a fool. Meanwhile the Korean may feel that he is graciously lying to preserve the kibun of the Westerner.

Within whole cultures, the so-called upwardly mobile classes tend to be the most intolerant about violations of form. Lower or working class people frequently take a perverse delight in violating what they see as the dishonest pretensions of "high society"; (my own family origins are working class, and my childhood recollections are rich with this kind of contempt for elaborate etiquette).

Secure members of the upper classes may feel safe enough to regard the elaborate manners of their peers with a certain self-deprecating humour. However those who are clawing their way up the social ladder are often zealous about "correct" forms of politeness, social ritual, political correctness (e.g. the fashions of feminism), dress, and so on. I can think of many examples from my own country, Australia, and I am sure that any thoughtful Korean sociolinguist could find a rich vein of examples in Korean society.

There are few societies on earth in the 21st Century which are not experiencing intense pressures of social change. In East Asia, Korea and China are both struggling with seismic shifts in values.

During the academic year 2000 I surveyed over a hundred and thirty Masters and Ph.D. students I was teaching in a Chinese university. My enquiry was about the RESPECT (or lack of respect) these students felt culturally encouraged to show in public towards thirty different factors, ranging from age to dress to power, and so on. They were also asked to rate on a scale of 1 to 5, their private feelings about these matters. I never did fully analyse the results, but it was quickly clear that the students disagreed amongst themselves on almost all of these respect values! Their answers were all over the place. In other words, they belonged to a society in rapid transition, where values were no longer fixed and understood by most members of the culture. It would be fair to predict that their notions of what constituted politeness would be as confused as their views about respect.

The Australia into which I was born in 1945 was 97% Anglo-Celtic, and people were relatively sure of where their values lay. It was not too hard to ascertain if someone intended to be polite or rude. Today perhaps 40% of the Australian population come from any of 200 different cultural and linguistic backgrounds. The social ground rules are frankly very difficult to generalize about… In 1971 I worked in London for six months, and again that was a society which was overwhelmingly Anglo-Celtic, and knew what it believed in as a group. Today, one Londoner out of every three is non-white. Thus Australia and England are now quite a different countries from the nations and peoples celebrated in their respective school history books. I don't regret these changes (though others do of course).

One consequence of huge social changes in Australia and England, as well as China (for different reasons), not to speak of a host of other nation states, is that social and linguistic markers for values like politeness are no longer universally recognised throughout their cultures. Such a proposition might surprise many people living narrow routine lives though, for very few members of those countries reflect upon the changes in the way this essay has done. They are at best only half-conscious of their own daily compromises in cross-cultural communication: adjustments which would have shocked their grandfathers.

Individuals do complain amongst their peer groups endlessly about the "breakdown in values" etc. However, to be offended all the time is not a practical or satisfying way to live. The daily reality is that most people in these societies have learned to be cautious about interpreting signals of rudeness or politeness. Rather than focussing on ritual forms of language and behaviour, they have learned to search for the INTENT behind the language. This is sometimes difficult with strangers, but the old rule of thumb that "actions speak louder than words" usually decodes the real intent of a stranger's words, sooner or later.

Of course, form still does have some impact, but the range of acceptability is generally treated with a certain latitude. Just as a drunk may be allowed some liberties, but only within limits, so an Anglo-Australian (say) in a Lebanese restaurant will make certain allowances for miscommunication.

Within the host culture of a multicultural country, all kinds of subgroups may try to impose norms of politeness and other proscriptions. Those subgroups may be defined by income, education, geography, ethnicity, religion, membership of some organization, and so on. Whatever their in-group behaviour however, members cannot escape the reality that as soon as they enter public discourse -- for example, by visiting a corner store -- all bets on social rules become negotiable.

The management of certain workplaces also attempt to impose what they call the "standards" of their company or institution on employees. In Western countries at least, some of these standards are even legislated, such as those applying to sexist language and gesture. Such proscriptions tend to meet a good deal of resistance, but many men (for example) have been forced to accept that language they considered normal in the workplace is now impolite (or even actionable at law) to women in that environment. As an aside, I have noticed that a number of male foreign teachers in Korea are inclined to use sexist language in staffrooms which would land them in deep professional trouble at home. That is, some are exploiting their absence from the restrictions of their home culture to award themselves greater freedom to be impolite.

The intercultural experiences of Korea have been very different from those of modern nations of immigration (e.g. Canada, Australia, the United States, Western Europe etc.). Nor has Korea been through the disorienting trauma of China's cultural revolution, where all traditional values were trashed. Korea has had violent experiences of military conflict and occupation, but the very nature of that aggression helped to weld a common identity amongst Koreans.

Now Korea is a major trading nation, and hosts the American army (not to speak of an army of English teachers), as well as a subterranean, exploited workforce of "illegal" factory workers. In spite of these intrusions, the core life experiences of nearly all Koreans centres around things Korean. There are not the daily pressures to decode ambiguous signals from other culture groups which any urban Australian or American takes for granted.

Perhaps for the reasons of cultural insularity just outlined, linguistic and behavioural FORMS of politeness seem (at least to a Western foreigner) to still play a very significant part in expected behaviour in Korea, and polite INTENT perhaps a less important role sometimes.

That is not to say that there won't be important differences in the behaviour of upper class and working class Koreans, as well as regional differences (most famously between blunt Busan men and the smoother, less candid style of the western provinces). It also remains true that many mannered Japanese continue to regard Koreans as uncouth and ignorant of polite behaviour, while many Koreans see themselves as "rough but honest" as against the false mask of barbarous Japanese….

How then should expatriates such as myself analyse the goodwill or ill-will of citizens in countries where they happen to work, such as Korea? Foreigners, or at least Western foreigners, are finally going to measure Korean politeness or impoliteness as they do in their home countries. That is, they will be inclined to value the intent behind linguistic forms rather than the forms themselves. Recalling that the Koreans they speak to will generally be struggling to use English words with a Korean mindset, getting to the intent behind the message is frequently difficult!

Sometimes the matching of language with action is quite direct and easy to interpret despite cultural and linguistic differences. A few weeks ago I spent a couple of days in Seoul, my first visit for nineteen years. As I stood in T'apkol Park wondering how on earth to find a certain recommended yogwan (guest house) in a city which has almost no street names, I was approached by a middle aged woman. She asked if I needed help, studied my travel guide with puzzlement, and tried to call the place on her cell-phone. The phone had problems, so she immediately accosted a male student who was walking past and told him to call on his phone. The yogwan manager offered to collect me, but didn't come for some fifteen minutes. The student stayed with me for all of this time; the woman had to leave on business, but came back later to check…. These were complete strangers who could have had no expectation of reward.

The T'apkol Park encounter is what I call real politeness, and over the next couple of days this kind of spontaneous help occurred several times. During the eight months that I have lived in Busan not a single individual has offered to help me in the street. Is this a large cultural difference between the two cities, or does Seoul have many more people per square kilometre who are confident of using English??

Here is a scenario of a different kind which occurred several months ago. The foreign professors were hanging around in their staffroom, waiting for a suitable moment to join other school officials on an outdoor podium. The occasion was a ceremony at to mark the beginning of the academic year. Suddenly an administrative functionary from the general office marched in and said in a loud voice, "everyone get out!" There was a shocked silence. This individual is famous for his insensitivity, and our first impulse was to hang the squirt by his heels from a fifth floor window. We realized however that not even he could have intended such an assault on decorum. He has a problem with English modal verbs (very common amongst L2 speakers). Taking our time, we made a move out to the podium….

When is it rude to be rude then? To sum up, stable communities develop all kinds of linguistic and behavioural formulas to signal the politeness intentions of their members. This occurs because politeness is an essential mechanism for preserving harmony and goodwill within the group, and formulas, being predictable, are less likely to be misunderstood than creative language. However, the basic matching of politeness formulas with good intentions is eroded by many factors, both ancient and modern.

Firstly, politeness formulas (like all other human creations) are manipulated by opportunists for personal gain. This depletes their potency, and forces members of a culture to reinforce the basic formulaic signals with more creative language, gesture and performance. In turn, this quasi-creativity becomes standardized in small in-groups, fashionable expressions arise, and outsiders find themselves floundering to establishing their credentials. For example, many of us are familiar with the sad sight of a middle aged man trying to sound hip and agreeable with his teenage son's friends.

Rapid global social change, the transmigration of millions of people within and across national boundaries, and the internationalization of employment have all made the preservation of social harmony both more important and more difficult. The traditional dependence upon formulaic politeness persists, but the swift punishment which might have followed violations of form in traditional societies is no longer sensible. In a dynamic and ever changing world, we wish each other well, but pause after each handshake to see if the other fellow is holding an olive branch or a gun behind his back.



References and Bibliography


Brown P & Levinson S 1978 "Universals in language usage: Politeness phenomena", in Goody E (ed.) Questions and Politeness. London: C.U.P.

Charles Ferguson 1981 "The Structure and Use of Politeness Formulas", in Coulmas F 1981; also in Language in Society 1976 5:137-151

Coulmas F 1979 "On the sociolinguistic relevance of routine formulae", Journal of Pragmatics 33:239-266

Coulmas F 1981 "Poison to you soul. Thanks and apologies contrastively viewed", in Coulmas F 1981:69

Coulmas F (ed.) 1981 Conversational Routine. Explorations in Standardized Communication Situations and Prepatterned Speech, The Hague: Mouton

Erbaugh, Mary S. (2008) "China Expands its courtesy saying, "Hello", to strangers". The Journal of Asian Studies Vol.67,No.2 (May) 2008:621–652. Online at [this is a very excellent analysis of courtesy language as a marker of social change]

House J & Kasper G 1981 "Politeness markers in English and German", in Coulmas F 1981:157-1

Tannen D & Oztek P 1981 "Health to our mouths! Formulaic expressions in Turkish and Greek" in Coulmas F 1981:37; reprinted from the Proceedings of the 3rd annual meeting of the Berkley Linguistics Society; pp.516-34



* Note on personal names: all names in this Diary have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals,
unless stated otherwise.

"When Is It Rude To Be Rude?"... copyrighted to Thor May 2001; all rights reserved