Korean: “It’s not what you said, it’s the way you said it”

Disclaimer: I have a keen eye for the obvious.

I have been listening to the Korean drama phrase audio book from TTMIK. Some of the phrases are of the kind that you need to be careful with in real life, but knowing them will help you understand movies and dramas because they occur relatively frequently.

This made me think more about being rude in foreign languages. In some languages it just seems a lot stronger than in others.

To me, being rude in Korean somehow seems a lot more rude compared to being rude in other languages I have studied. Do you think so too?

My reasoning is this: In other languages, your main “weapon” will be your actual choice of words which can then be combined with tone of voice. Calling someone an idiot is going to get some kind of message across in all languages, but in Korean the insult can be augmented by dropping different speech level to let someone know that you are less than pleased with them. When I became aware of the existence of different speech levels back in the days, I noticed that if you read the subtitles of a movie, the words on their own wouldn’t necessarily be that offensive, but when factoring in the sudden change of endings it was easier to understand why one of the parties would suddenly become very upset because the change of grammar in itself would be significant. Having such distinctly different formality levels really adds some subtlety to all types of exchanges since “speaking down” to someone depends on so much more than the words.

So far I stick to trying not to offend someone by my choice of speech level, though…

Maybe I just have a keen eye for the obvious, but Korean is one of those languages where that dreadful comment “it’s not what you said, it’s the way you said it” actually makes sense.


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