What I learned about politeness in a Korean flower shop

We take it for granted that people should know how to be polite. You say “please” and “thank you”, you smile, and you tell people you’re doing well when they ask how you are – even if your life is in turmoil! At least, that’s...


We take it for granted that people should know how to be polite. You say “please” and “thank you”, you smile, and you tell people you’re doing well when they ask how you are – even if your life is in turmoil! At least, that’s how it works in the West.

I’ve been living in Korea for almost two years and it’s a little different over here. Koreans have a distinctive way of saying “yes” to each other that may sound like a dismissive grunt to a native English speaker.

When my girlfriend and I first started dating, for example, I’d ask if she wanted to have pizza for dinner. “Uh,” she’d reply, and it took me a while to learn that this meant, “yes”. Naturally, as we began spending more time together, I began using the reply myself and it eventually became an unconscious thing: without noticing, I would grunt, “Uh,” whenever I wanted to say “yes”. Why was this an issue?

I’m used to expressing politeness by using the word “please” or excessively apologising, like the good Canadian boy I am. But in Korea I’m often at a loss because there’s no real word for “please” in Korean and if you say “sorry” without having actually done anything to apologise for, you just seem odd and silly. Instead, politeness in Korean is expressed using different word endings. There are three levels – casual, everyday formal, and super formal – and for each level you end the last word of your sentence in a different way.

It’s a little confusing but for the sake of this story all you need to know is that using “uh” to say “yes” is something you would do only when speaking to someone younger or whom you know very well. You would use a different word in more formal situations – something I now know…

A few weeks ago I had to buy some flowers…

In the shop, an old Korean couple were sitting behind the register, silently eating noodles. I smiled, said “hello”, and began browsing the flower display.

The old lady rose from her seat and asked me in Korean if I’d like to buy the bouquet that I was looking at. “Uh,” I replied, without noticing. She began preparing the flowers. As she did so I noticed a sour look on her husband’s face as he sucked up a few noodles from his bowl

“Would you like to pay by card?” she asked me. “Uh,” I smiled and handed her my card. Now her face turned sour too. I tried making small talk with them in Korean – something I’ve found usually delights the elderly couples here as they watch me struggle to form sentences. This time, however, they barely responded.

I sensed something was wrong. “Would you like a receipt?” she asked in a tone that seemed rather harsh. “Uh,” I said. She gave me the receipt and sat back down without thanking me or saying goodbye. I eventually figured it out as I replayed the scene in my head on the walk home.

Worst of all was that I had no idea how many times I’d done the same thing to others; I imagined the number to be high. I consider myself to be a polite person, yet here I was in Korea, walking around grunting at elders.

Politeness is often one of the first things lost in translation, as it turns out.

So the next time you see someone from another country behaving in a way that would be rude in your own country, perhaps they’re just oblivious about the dos and don’ts of your culture. Maybe they really do mean well and are just confused about how to express their good intentions. Maybe they aren’t accustomed to all of the strange things we do that seem normal to us.

…Or maybe that particular person really is obnoxious. Who knows?

If you’re learning English and are worried that you might be making the same mistake that I did (or if you’d simply like to learn more ways to improve as an English speaker) there is a free eBook available on my website.

Have you found yourself in a situation when your words or actions have been lost in translation? Tell us about it in the comments section below…

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