What I Learned about Politeness at a Korean Flower Shop

We take it for granted that people should know how to be polite. It seems like something universal: 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 the past year and a bit and it’s a little different over here.

Koreans have a distinct way of saying “Yes” to each other that sounds like a dismissive grunt to the 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 spent more time together, I began using “Uh” myself. Eventually it became unconscious; without noticing I would grunt “Uh” whenever I wanted to say yes to something.

Why was this an issue?

I’m used to expressing politeness by using the word, “Please,” or excessively apologizing 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 apologize for, you just seem strange and silly.

Instead, politeness in Korean is expressed using different word endings. There are essentially three levels—casual, everyday formal, and super formal—and in each level you would 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 than you or someone who you know very well. You would use a different word to say “Yes” in more formal situations.

The other week I went to a flower shop.

There was an old Korean couple inside sitting behind the register. They were eating noodles together silently. 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 bouqet that I was looking at. “Uh,” I said, without noticing.

She began preparing the flowers. As she did 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 looked 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, I barely received a response.

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 reasonably polite person, yet here I was in Korea, walking around grunting “Uh” at elders like an asshole.

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

So the next time you see a foreigner acting in a way that seems rude in your own country, perhaps they’ve just misunderstood some of 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 just is a dick. Who knows. 😉


My name is Jacob. I’m fascinated by all of the strange things we often tell ourselves that prevent us from doing what we want to do in life. Soon-to-be blogger at pooroldme.com Check me out here.

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