A few very interesting points were made by colleagues who attended a conference wherein the importance of title was a topic of conversation.
Age as a title. I learned very quickly in Korea (almost upon arrival) it is not considered awkward to be asked directly by someone you just met your age, marital status, your birth year, month, or date (to discover exactly whether you are older or younger if you and your new acquaintance share the same birth year), etc. These questions are asked, particularly ones relating to age, so that the person you are conversing with knows how to continue interacting with you. Thus, if you are older than s/he, the individual will know to treat you with more respect than if you were younger. So if you were in a dinner setting for instance, and you were the youngest, you may find yourself working harder than everyone else – pouring drinks for everyone, cognizant of empty glasses, you may find yourself drinking more (alcohol) at the (direct or indirect) request of someone older, or eating whatever is ordered by the older individuals.
Comparative: This is a bit different in the US (although you may observe these ways still practiced amongst some Asian Americans of whom are perhaps less acculturated) where questions pertaining to age, martial status, etc. are reserved for more personal conversations that usually take place when a relationship has moved beyond introductions.
Work titles. Titles are very important in Korea. It shows your status. And status is important because it indicates how you are to treat others and how you can be expected to be treated by others. Status also adds to the image you are upholding and impacts your sense of identity. So add these up and you sort of get the message that work is, at least in part, your identity. So a person may find that they are working hard to move up the ladder to increase their earning potential as well as having other personal motivations, however; it is likely that the individual is also working to get the title. Furthermore, when you retire, the title to which you are retiring follows you to the grave. You will be known, even when you are no longer working, as the person who used to be the so-and-so. Embedded in your identity is the title.
Comparative: My opinion is that it’s very similar in the US, but depending on discipline and character. For instance, I find that in the corporate sector the title is very important for similar reasons. I find that in academia, the title is important, but more to recognize the person’s accomplishments but theoretically, how a person is treated is usually void of consideration of their title. Theoretically. However, I also find that in both cultures you will come across those who are attached to their title and those who are not – difference being character. Some characters need their title and some don’t. At retirement, their titles may or may not follow them also depending on their discipline. For example, in the military people are remembered for their title (ranks) more so than in other areas of vocation. I find that what a person chose as their vocatio is only part of their identity and that upon retirement, they have a choice to reinvent themselves.
Relationships as titles. Titles could also be the people you know. Another individual in the meeting shared a story about SK’s soccer team and Guus Hiddkink, a Dutch born soccer coach who no less than revolutionized the SK soccer team, as well as SK culture. Pre-Hiddink, SK was known to play players based on familial, personal, and school connections (Lee, Jackson & Lee, 2007) and they were terrible. Then Hiddink came along and said in short, I’m going to play the players based on talent, not who they know or their background. He restructured the team and brought the SK soccer team to “attain a historic fourth place finish” in the 2002 World Cup (pg. 284). As a result, Korea made him an “honorary Korean” and became the “glocal hero.” The idea of playing players based on talent was not accepted at all and Hiddink took a lot of slack for it in the beginning. However, upon witnessing the success of considering talent and quality in soccer, and not just playing people based off politics, SK began to rethink its economic and political systems. The sense was, perhaps it pays off to operate outside of tradition. According to Lee, Jackson, and Lee (2007), Hiddink was such an influence on SK that his soccer team selection tactics were translated into business practices and “basics of Hiddink business administration” became requirements for all Korean business scholars (pg. 293). (For more on this see, South Korea’s “Glocal” Hero: The Hiddink Syndrome and the Rearticulation of National Citizenship and Identity). In my vicarious experiences, Skoreans have an ambivalent relationship with foreigners – they rely on them to be innovative and to show the world that they are global, but they don’t necessarily welcome foreigners – hence the many difficult and somewhat arbitrary hoops presented to employ a foreigner (i.e restricted from owning land, 1.1% of pop are foreigners but few are full residents, less than 10 foreigners per year are naturalized). Once again, an iteration that things are in place to present an image, but the reality can be rather different.
Comparative: Relationships and networking is invaluable in the US and there are definitely times when people are granted special treatment because of their relationship to someone (in the entertainment industry especially, and of course just trying to get in a club in LA). However, to not operate based on merit is less common, which does not suggest an absence of shadiness… I’m just saying that you wouldn’t find the LA Lakers not playing Kobe just because he was the youngest on the team.
Age, work, and relationships are all parts of what make up an identity. However, when I imagine myself coming from a space where those aspects inform people how they treat me, I feel incredibly pressured… I feel a sense that I’m not doing enough or that I have to keep up with the Jones,’ er… the Kims. Coming from a non SK background, I feel confined and find it unpleasant. When I lived in SF, I was exposed to ultra liberal ways and mindsets where to box someone in, or categorize someone, is almost offensive. Now I’m in SK where it’s the norm. As such, my personal identity negotiation process as an adult TCK is to understand what the cultural differences are, name my emotional reactions, then decide whether I like what I am learning and/or feeling. In this regard, I definitely enjoy the freedom of having an identity outside of my work, network, and age. Nevertheless, this particular cultural difference has been eye opening in helping me understand the degree to which Confucianism is the “core” of the culture.