What should you call that person?

Knowing what to call someone seems so easy in most English-speaking situations, especially nowadays in the United States, where two-year-olds address their grandparents' friends by their first names with impunity. And if you find yourself in a situation where you're not sure how someone is to be addressed, you can just come right out and ask, "What should I call you?"

Not so in the Korean language. Koreans generally try to avoid calling each other by name, and until the nature of a relationship is firmly pinned down, they may find themselves at a loss. This is why Koreans often ask someone they've just met questions that may seem prying to Westerners. They want to find out where they stand in the social hierarchy relative to the person they're just meeting.

Except in formal working situations or in family or school relationships, there are no hard-and-fast rules that you can apply that will ensure that you don't commit a social blunder, but here are some guidelines that may help.

1. Generally, given names are to be learned but not spoken.

Only children may be safely addressed by their given names right off the bat. You may eventually call other young people or close friends by their given names, but normally not until asked to do so.

Even when introducing people to each other, you don't usually need to give the full name. You just say something like, "This is one of my coworkers. Greet each other." Then they take over and say their names to each other so fast that they can't remember them without looking at the inevitable business card. (In any case, you need to refer to that card because it tells you what the person's title is.)

You may be thinking, if I can't use someone's given name, why bother learning it at all? Well, for some mysterious reason, many Koreans, especially gentlemen in business, will say to you out of a clear blue sky one day over lunch or drinks, "Can you remember my given name?" If you haven't done your homework, you will be forced, as I have so many embarrassing times, to say something dumb like "Well, let's see, it's got two syllables, right? Gosh, it's on the tip of my tongue, but . . ." If you're as unlucky as I am in this respect, it will probably turn out that the person you said this to is one of those rare fellows with a one-syllable or three-syllable given name.

2. Avoid the English terms Mr. and Miss when speaking Korean.

You've probably heard Koreans using Mr. and Miss when speaking Korean, but you have to be aware that when spoken in Korean these words do not have the same level of formality as they do in English. They are generally used on people who occupy the lowest rungs on the ladder of socio-economic status and who are nevertheless not young enough to be called by their given names. These include waiters, waitresses, and such bottom-level workers as messenger boys or gofers.

Koreans who are good speakers of English are able to maintain a double standard as regards these terms. While Professor Gim would be insulted if one of his students addressed him as "Mr. Gim," he himself would mean no disrespect at all when addressing one of his colleagues from America as "Mr. Smith."

3. Use titles whenever appropriate.

Though in English it sounds stupid to go around calling people "Section Chief Johnson" or "Executive Managing Director Stalarski," in Korean this is the normal practice among business associates. The same applies in academia, where everybody is the Honorable Professor or the Honorable Principal, and their wives are called "Honorable Teacher-Mother." (Not knowing what else to do with the concise honorific suffix -nim (님), I have translated it as 'honorable.')

4. When in doubt, always start too high.

You don't want to take a chance on alienating somebody by using an insultingly low form of address, so if you're not sure, just start off with the highest honorific you can think of, excluding, of course, terms reserved for royalty or nobility — like Mama (마마) or Nari (나리) — or for heads of state — like Gakha (각하). Seonsaengnim (선생님) is a pretty safe bet.

The term Sajangnim (사장님, meaning 'Honorable Company President') seems to work on anyone who owns a car or wears a neatly pressed suit and a tie, especially if you're trying to sell him something. If he looks a bit rumpled, has a beard, and carries books around with him, Gyosunim (교수님, 'Honorable Professor') would be more appropriate. I know from personal experience that this works. Sometime back I bought a set of windshield wipers from a guy in Jongno 2-ga who called me "Gyosunim," and I don't even own a car, nor do I teach.

5. If you don't have a relationship with the addressee, call him by somebody else's relationship to him.

That may sound confusing, but it's the common practice in nonbusiness situations. Here's where it comes in handy to know the given names of children. Koreans often address parents by their children's names: "Gapsuni's Mom" (갑순이 엄마) or "Gapdori's Papa" (갑돌이 아빠) or even just the child's name alone. This leads to situations where Gapsuni answers to the call of "Gapsuna!" (갑순아!) only to be told, "Not you — your mother!"

You address other relatives besides the parents the same way the children would: call their grandmother "Halmeoni" (할머니) and their maternal aunt "Imo" (이모) and so on, just like the kids. It's usually safe to address a friend's family members the same way he does, too, but don't call his wife "Yeobo" (여보)!

Some people use this method of address even when they don't even know anyone related to the person being addressed. One male friend of mine consistently calls the young waitresses in restaurants "Eonni" (언니) and the waiters, "Oppa" (오빠). When I protested that those are the terms used by women, he said, "Well, they're somebody's eonni and oppa."

6. Ask a Korean.

This last rule is the most useful of all. When you're out to dinner with two guys you've just become acquainted with, avoid calling them anything until one of them goes to the rest room. Then ask the other, "What should I call him?" Later, when the other one excuses himself, you ask again. Neither is the wiser, and you've solved your problem.

An earlier version of this article first appeared in the Korea Herald on 3 April 2000.