Age first or hierarchy first?

Suppose a student is in her late 50s and the Korean teacher is in her late 20s or so.
The teacher speaks formally to her student, as she’s twice her age, which is to be expected.
But what is the student supposed to do? Speak formally to the teacher, I think, since it’s her teacher, right?

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I go for formally because she is a teacher. It might feel a bit weird though (my own personal experience).

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LOL - I have never ever experienced any trouble about that. Most of the time everyone was on a friendly term with the other person. Teacher or not, …
Me as a “teacher” or the elder one, which ever way always offered the other one the informal speech, what is more important is to treat each other with respect.

But if it’s outside of Viki, I guess respect comes first and depending on the background of the two people, it could also be possible for both to speak formally.
If it’s an actual case, why not treat it individual and talk about how the other feels.
But if the teacher wants to use informal speech and also wants the student to use formal speech, than the student has no other option as to oblige to the teacher. (This is the view from Germany, it might differ in another country)

I’m talking about a Korean point of view, since she’s a Korean, and my Korean teacher. (That’s the reason I posted my question here)
And to be frank I would prefer not to ask her “do you want us to speak informally” because I’m sure she would probably feel awkward doing it.

Actually I had the same question many decades ago, when reading a Savoir Vivre, on whom do you introduce to whom. It said you introduce the younger to the older person, except when the younger person is of higher rank. And I could think of various “gray area” cases, when it is not as clear cut as the Queen or the Pope or a high ranking official.

I’d say speak both sides speak formally to each other in this case.


That’s what I was doing till now, but I was wondering if I should ask her to speak informally to me, that’s why I asked.

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Since you are a lot older than her, she may feel uncomfortable with that.

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I still remember my confusion, when I was younger, and my ballet teacher was also a family friend - in my country and generation, you speak informally to close family friends.
You know how I solved it? In a split personality way. I spoke to him informally at home and formally in class, LOL!
There was also the case of this unfortunate classmate of mine in middle school, who was the daughter of our math teacher…


To a much younger teacher, I’d say you should always speak formally in a classroom setting, in front of other people. But if it’s a private tutoring, I think it’s okay to speak informally to a much younger teacher, if it’s okay with the teacher. But it really depends on the situation and how comfortable you feel with each other.

On the other hand, I don’t think a teacher would ever speak informally to a much older student.


I think I had read some article once about this in Korean culture and is said something along these lines: the person who is older but lower in rank must use speak formally at first, but the younger-higher person must prompt the informal speech out of respect to the elder, if the age difference is noticeable. If the lower rank is highly esteemed (like a young president to an old doctor or professor), the young one could still keep the honorifics, in some contexts

Also, it said that sometimes the elder people will use formal speech towards younger-higher but refer to themselves with “nega” (the informal version of “me, I”) so as to show they respect you but they hold themselves in a high position, too, because of their age. This is not considered rude.

I always thought diplomats have one of the most difficult jobs in the world, because they have to navigate all those grey areas in different countries, languages and companies of people. The horror!! :stuck_out_tongue:


Maybe you can ask your teacher what she prefers? As some ahjumma prefer to called unni…so maybe an unni doesn’t want to be addressed the same way as you would to an ahjumma?
I work with mostly elderly people and to show respect you have to address them formally but quite a lot said I could drop that and some prefer I just say their name. And sometimes I use a mix of both and they do too.

We use formal but you might actually make a conversation on it (like the vous vs. tus) to make sure there are no hurt feelings.

For me eventually I get close enough to the purple who are older than me so I slip and never return.

Thanks for everybody’s input.
As it’s a group class, and most of the others are young adults (university students), and of course they all address her formally, I decided to also keep doing the same. If she feels awkward about it, she can tell me herself that I don’t need to.

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In a Korean Hanja class (Chinese character) class, teacher was in late 20’s, early 30’s. I was a student (70+ years at the time. Fellow student (grad student, late 20’s) introduces me as his “friend, who is an attorney.” Teacher was a Ph.D. candidate.

Throughout the semester , we have recitation doing problems at the end of the chapter. So we go around the room, each student doing a problem. Teacher called on each student by first name followed by ssi. But he always said daeum – “next” when it was my turn. He knew what my name was because I wrote it on the homework and quizzes. I finally figured out in the middle of the semester that in the Korean hierarchical system, he didn’t know how to address me. By age and profession, I should be spoken to honorifically always. But in the classroom, he was my superior because I was a student. So to resolve the ambiguity he just called me “next’”.

On the other hand, in two other classes, we had visiting full professors from Korea. They both told me to address them by their first names – no need for 선생님 of 교수님.


Yay to all the creative solutions!

Oh, I have another anecdote. My singing teacher. After quite a few years together, we had come to see each other almost like mother and daughter. But the formal style in which I addressed her of course was the same. I was in my early twenties and she was, who knows, around 50?
Then a day comes, after an important examination which I passed. She embraces me, very moved, and whispers in my ear: “From today I want you to speak to me in the singular”.
Omo! It was impossible to do. But I did not want her to think I was trying to keep distance from her, because I loved her dearly. So what to do? Nothing. I did the most impossible turns of phrases to avoid having to use any of the two forms of address. I never really addressed her, I spoke in vague impersonal sentences, I used passive voice etc.
Instead of “Do you like it better like this or like this” --> “Should I choose this or this?”
Instead of “What do you think of this singer’s interpretation? Do you like him?” --> “I sort of like his interpretation and he got good reviews from critics. But is he really good?”
Instead of “Would you like a glass of water?” --> Should I bring some water?
Instead of “Can you hear this? I want your opinion” --> I’d like an opinion on this.
and so on.
The poor woman, who is long dead now, never knew, I’m sure, what a problem she brought on me with this kindly meant request.
Because whatever it is, is difficult to change.


been there done that. yeah but look, I am a student I should respect my teacher even she is younger than me. Yeah I may be all “knowledgeable” and all, BUT respect for the teacher is the main thing, oh and by the way, the teachers respected me as well, yes for the age thing and boy they were sharp, smart too. I think it is important for the individuals to set the ground rules, I say respect the teacher, I am much older than them, they are the teacher I am the student. bottom line.sure I could usurp them I am the oldest etc, but I am there to learn not upgrade a teacher, oh yeah this could be vise versa, dod we respect that older teacher when we were in school? I sure do hope so!

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