Politeness and Hierarchy


One of the lessons I learned from dating my wife is that in Japanese culture, it’s important to know your place among those around you. The rules are pretty simple, but I also realized that they apply to other cultures, such as Korean culture, Vietnamese culture, etc:

  • If someone is older than you, you should politer speech.
  • The greater the difference, the politer the speech.
  • For people younger than you, you can usually be more casual, but not too much.
  • For children and such, it sounds awkward if you are too polite.

The rules are very simple (simple enough that people all over Asia have been following them for centuries), but this was difficult for me to understand at first. As an American, I am used to calling my bosses by their first name, and talking fairly casual. For example, my boss here at work is about 10 years older than me, and has been in the company twice as long as me. And yet, we talk almost as peers.1

In the same way, with my friends, I never thought about age or hierarchy. So, when I met my wife’s friends and family, I had trouble understanding the importance. Then, when I learned about polite Japanese, I started talking too polite. Lately, I’ve learned to use more appropriate levels, but I still struggle sometimes. 😉

This Korean lesson at TTMIK does a good job of illustrating this. Click on the link and take a look. For people who are older, you have to use polite Korean or jondaenmal (존댓말), and for friends and those under you, you use banmal (반말) which is more informal. For example, my wife and I have a friend who’s Korean and she’s a bit older than us. So, I speak polite Korean with her, and call her “older sister” (nuna 누나). Since we’re close friends, she’s told me we can just use banmal, but I still over-do it sometimes. 😉

Similarly, when I learned Vietnamese, the same basic rules applied. Once you get a sense of age, it’s proper Vietnamese to address older people as “uncle”, “older brother”, etc. Vietnamese has different words for “uncle”: bác if they are older than your parents and chú or if they are younger. You had to call yourself cháu (means “nephew”) and such. When I first learned Vietnamese, I learned only tôi (“I”), not cháu, so my Vietnamese sounded too formal and distant. That’s OK in some settings, but once you get to know someone, it makes more sense to just use kinship terms. During my last weeks in Vietnam, I started to get the hang of this, and my Vietnamese started to improve because I could engage in conversation more readily. But using kinship terms, it can show respect, but also friendliness too.

Anyway, with Japanese, I started as being too informal, then I became too formal to compensate. A good example is my sister-in-law. She’s very nice and friendly toward me, so we talk pretty informally, but I still call her onēsan (お姉さん) instead of her name because she’s older than my wife and I. Since we’re close and she’s not much older, I don’t have to be too polite. However with my mother and father-in-law (especially my father-in-law), I need to be more formal and polite. Again, my in-laws are very nice and patient with me (and happy that I am trying), it’s not that strict, but I still prefer to make a good effort.

Similarly with my wife’s friends, there’s a friendly hierarchy. They’re all friends of course, but the younger ones talk to the older ones with slightly more respect. Also, the older ones tend to have more influence in the group. It’s all perfectly friendly, but people subconsciously know their place.

Anyhow, so the key to being social in Japanese, Korean or Vietnamese culture is to be sensitive to hierarchy and the age and rank of people around you. If someone is older or in a position of authority (e.g. boss, senior, doctor, teacher, etc), remember to treat them with more respect. The bigger the age difference, the greater the respect. With people under you, you can relax, but don’t be bossy or mean. No one likes that in any culture. 😉

P.S. I suspect Chinese is similar, but I don’t know. I’d love to hear from Chinese-native speakers about this too.

1 If you think I’m being informal, my wife and co-workers often tease me for being too polite. ;p


Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

2 thoughts on “Politeness and Hierarchy”

  1. It has to be Chinese as it all comes from the teachings of Confucius. I think it is a scurge as it makes people respect others just because they are older and it isn’t results based. How about you?


    1. Hello,

      Given that I have a whole section of this blog devoted to Confucianism, suffice to say I do not think it is a scourge. I appreciated it a lot more once I met my wife and learned how to interact with my in-laws, etc., though before that, I felt the same way.


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