In K-class, we’re currently learning the ‘honorific’ form of speaking Korean (하세요, etc.) This should be used or not depending on whom you are speaking to / about. The hononorific form should be employed when speaking to someone older or of higher social status than you. For example, you would use it talking about someone else (but not yourself,) or when speaking to your boss, teacher, parents or grandparents. So even if gosipping about your headmaster behind his back, you would simultaneously be honouring him in the honorific form!
For someone who is really not used to this method of social hierarchy, I found it extremely confusing in certain situations, namely the ‘Mothers’ Class’ that I used to teach. These women were much older than me and married with children, yet I was the teacher. They addressed me politely and with respect, as ‘선생님’, yet it felt wrong to call them ‘아줌마’ as they were only in their 40s, but more importantly, were very cool and young at heart. I called them by their first names, but sensed an imbalance, as I felt clearly below them on the social scale.
Very quickly, myself and the ‘Mothers’ became close friends. We would go hiking and swimming together, they would spend time with my friends, and I with their families. They were so kind and welcoming, helping me out with everything from finding the best clothes to improving my language skills to accessing an English-speaking piano teacher. It became apparent that we were now ‘equals.’ They called me ‘언니’ and asked me to reciprocate. I asked if it wouldn’t be more appropriate to call them ‘누나’ as they were older than me and married, but they replied ‘no, we are best friends-sisters!’
I felt so honoured to be an 언니 to these truly lovely women, much more so than when I was merely their 선생님. This is possibly because I know how important honorifics and the social hierarchy are to Koreans. I will continue to try to fathom and abide by honorifics, but also continue to relish in the bending of the rules!