I have noticed from living and working in Seoul that Koreans give specific compliments more frequently than (what I am accustomed to) in the West. Rarely do you hear people in England complimenting each other so bluntly with comments like “What a handsome guy,” or “You are charming.”
Why do Koreans compliment so much? From what I have observed, compliments seem to have different functions depending on the social situation.
Compliments As Etiquette
In Korea, etiquette is extremely important and can be shown in many ways, such as honorific language and body gestures. Creating a friendly environment is also an expression of etiquette, so saying something positive is to be considerate of the other person’s comfort. Strangers and acquaintances both appeal in this way, but sometimes unnecessary and excessive compliments are used to clearly avoid awkwardness.
Compliments As Greeting
Compliments can be gateways into discussions as it initiates the interaction. This is one reason why Koreans compliment on appearance, as it is the most obvious thing to comment on, as they do not know much else.
Foreigners may find specific compliments on their appearance slightly baffling because they may not have experienced being judged on a different beauty standard. However, this is not necessarily because of stunning looks, as it may be just a simple conversation starter.
Compliments As Business
Compliments which are merely to flatter (아부), yet not exactly genuine are called ‘lip service’ (립 서비스) in Korean. This term frames compliments as a service, where the receiver acts as a customer who gets flattery in exchange for something else.
This sort of flattering can be seen while shopping as shop owners will try to make a sale by complimenting and flattering customers, or in a Korean office when workers compliments their seniors to benefit their own work life.
It is also evident in informal settings, as people flatter to prepare for a request. People who receive the compliment may be aware of an ulterior motive.
Compliments As A Habit
The compliments as a form of etiquette or greeting may seem inauthentic, however boldly and bluntly sharing honest opinions could simply be a part of Korean culture.
Vocally expressing opinions on an observation may be an acquired skill. As I have seen young children telling each other, “You are cute,” and “Your face is small,” which is most likely learned behaviour from parents.
Competitive Korean society may play a part in this, as people have become hyper aware of certain assets required to succeed in life, thus can easily spot useful and successful qualities in others. Bluntly sharing these thoughts has simply become a social norm.
Back-handed compliments are not really compliments, in fact they are sly criticisms disguised as humour and flattery. Back-handed compliments are insults and criticisms, but why are they shared aloud?
Some people may highlight obvious faults to improve them, some may be maliciously trying to condescend others, while others may be unaware of the effect of their words.
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