What is it with ‘Sunbae’ in Korea?

Hello beloved followers, and hopefully my ‘soon-to-be’ followers! Always nice to come back to write for you guys!

If you have been following our blog, you would have read about the importance of manners and etiquettes in our country and where it comes from – (To learn more, have a read of one of our posts: Manners & Etiquettes). Well today, I would like to talk to you about a fundamental aspect of that culture – the “Sunbae” and “Hoobae” culture.

There are many things in life that decide how two or more human beings interact with each other in society. It can be your position at the workplace that tells you how to treat certain people, and sometimes, it can also be your expertise in a particular field that fetches you respect. In Korea, age and experience play a major role in establishing the degree of formality and the nature of a relationship.

“Age is more than a number. It connotes experience, it connotes capability, it connotes power.”

The quotation above is one that is quite overarching in our country, especially in work environments and schools. In practically all first-time interactions between two Koreans, the first question they would ask each other is their age – it is that crucial. From the moment they find out each other’s age, the younger person will show respect to the older person in all possible ways. Since with age comes experience, age difference immediately establishes the hierarchy, or the power equation in the relationship.

While age is important in Korean culture in general, its role is even more prominent in schools, mostly in secondary schools and colleges. In an environment where the age difference could not be made clearer, how juniors treat seniors and vice versa are sharply different.

The way juniors (“Hoobae” in Korean) treat their seniors (“Sunbae” in Korean) is that of utmost respect. Although the degree of respect differs slightly from school to school, the ‘vertical’ nature of the relationship is more or less the same throughout the country. For example, they will use the same respectful language they use for teachers or an even more respectful one (quite ridiculous in my opinion), they will greet all seniors regardless of whether they know each other or not, and occasionally, if not always, do them a favour! Do all these seem bizarre? Korean students think so too, but it is also important for them to forge good relations with seniors as they can help you in academics or social life with their experience. However in some schools, there is a certain fear that not respecting the Sunbaes ‘properly’ will lead to their hardship and getting bullied by the seniors – something that should definitely be eradicated.

As far as how Sunbaes treat Hoobaes is concerned, it is much more relaxed. Most of the time they look at the juniors as themselves when they were younger, and help them out with their difficulties. However, there are cases where seniors look at the juniors as subservient and take advantage of that by making them suffer – either by bullying them or making them do physical exercises (very similar to that of army) – with the excuse of “building characters”, telling them about how they went through the same thing from their seniors. This has become a major social issue in the country with many parents calling for the youth to move away from the culture of vertical-power-equation-relationship and adopt a more ‘horizontal’ culture of human relations.

To offer my personal viewpoint, I understand that seniors will definitely have a vast range of experience and will help out in situations. However, as more and more seniors are negatively exploiting the respect that the society has entrusted in them,

I feel that the distance between Sunbae and Hoobae must be abridged so that everyone can treat every other person with respect, regardless of whether they are older than you or not.

Thank you!

By @dohoonah




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