Age is one of the most fundamental classification of human is gender and age. Every human has his or her own age in every culture, but the meaning put to the age of each person differs from culture to culture. In Korea, whenever people gather or meet each other for the first time, one of the first questions asked is “and your age is….?” People “need” to know the person’s age so they can arrange how to address him or her and decide what form of language to use. The Korean language and culture makes a person to be more age sensitive as one is treated in a slightly different degree of attitude depending on one’s age.
“The reason that Koreans are sensitive to age is due to the underlying Confucianism rooted in the society,” explained Professor Sohn Eun-jung (Psychology). The influence from Confucianism which emphasizes social harmony and respect to the elderly results in every individual knowing his or her place in the social order and playing his or her part well. In a Confucian society, age has been one of the main factors that determine the role and status one holds in the society.
The second reason for age sensitivity is due to the Korean language. According to Professor Kim Young-hoon (Korean Studies), the Korean language along with the military culture and traditional practice of respecting a superior, induces the society to become age sensitive. “The need to know each other’s age from the first encounter derives from the urge to find out whether to use honorific expressions or just comfortable language. Only when that is cleared out do Koreans feel comfortable to address the other person and form a relationship,” said Kim.
Another reason that stimulates people to become age sensitive is the influence from military culture. The concept of sunbae (a Korean word used to address seniors) and hoobae (a Korean word to address juniors) rooted in the military culture makes a person become sensitive about their age because in the military, a person who is younger can become one’s superior. This is the same in the university as students who go to university a year or two late has a different age from their colleagues and face difficulties as they are sometimes older than their sunbaes.
“Due to these factors, the Korean society shows a unique structure that puts an important on hierarchy according to one’s age. This causes unnecessary tension sometimes and the possibility of achieving a horizontal society decreases,” said Kim. Even though the vertical hierarchy determined by age does eventually bring every person to each position as one gets older, Kim stresses that the social structure of putting too much importance on age and facing difficulties because of issue raised by age sensitivity should be overcome starting at the university where the new era of intelligence is getting educated.