During my years in Korea, the most embarrassing language situations have
occurred when I’ve misused the honorific forms. Of course, I’ve spoken 존대말 (respectful form of Korean) to children more times than I can count
and from time-to-time, I’ll say a little 반말 (low form of Korean) to adults. Usually I can fix the
issues with the adults pretty quickly, but the kids always start laughing immediately
and any attempt to fix it is “too little, too late”.
Here are a couple specific situations that had me grimacing long after
the events recounted. It takes a little Korean knowledge to understand exactly what I did wrong, but the main error is that I referred to myself in the respectful form, which is something one should never do. The characters in red font indicate the grammatical tag which I added but shouldn't have.
- Many years ago, I was having trouble with my computer and called in to
LG technical support for someone to come out and get it running for me. I was
pretty upset, and in the process of my pushing them to send out a technician
quickly, the customer service representative asked me if I really needed to use
the computer or not, to which I replied in a loud voice, “컴퓨터가 얼마나 필요하신지 몰라요!”… It was only later when my wife told me
what I’d done wrong that I realized how silly I must have sounded.
- More recently, I was at
the hospital for an x-ray and as I entered the exam room, the nurse asked me if
I spoke Korean (a rather common question for me!), to which I replied, “네, 한국말 잘 하세요.” I caught myself quickly,
but not before she’d replied with a sly smile, “오, 한국말 잘 하시는군요!”… I felt pretty stupid.