SEOUL — Hwang Yun-ik would never think to call his co-workers or boss by their first names. Most Koreans wouldn’t.
For Hwang, that changed recently. Kakao, one of South Korea’s largest Internet companies, decided three years ago that all employees would go by English nicknames. Hwang works at Kakao as a director in business development.
The strange part wasn’t being called an English name. It was being called, well, a name.
The norm in South Korea is to call your colleagues or superiors not by their given names but by their positions. It’s the same for addressing your older friends or siblings, your teacher or any person on the street. So if your family name is Johnson and you were to be hired in a Korean company as a manager, your co-workers would call you “Johnson-boojang.” To get the attention of your older female friend, you would call for “eunni,” or “older sister.”
This is a language where verb conjugations are based not on I, they, we and so on, but on formality levels. “The younger person must use honorific to the older person,” Hwang said. “If not, that makes a lot of conflict.”
One popular Korean blog was more explicit on shirking honorifics in the workplace: “Dropping your pants and [urinating] in the person’s briefcase would be only a little ruder than calling him/her by his/her first name.”
But some companies are looking to eliminate some of this hierarchy. The best way to do that, it seems, is dictating that employees take English names. Using the actual name of your boss or co-workers feels impolite. But, hopefully, calling him or her an English nickname taps into a different cultural mind-set.
That has ushered Koreans to take on typical English names such as Sophie or John. Or, in Hwang’s case, atypical ones: He chose “Unique.”
Why Unique? He responded simply and with a smile, “I am unique.”
Unique has embraced English nicknames, though folks elsewhere feel uneasy about it. Hwang Hye-rim, who previously worked at a translation company, said she always attached position names to her co-workers’ English names. “I was concerned that omitting job position names would be really offensive,” she said.
Hong Yun-ji likes the lack of hierarchy at the Seoul office of SABIC, a Saudi manufacturing company. But, in an office full of Esthers and Michelles, she stuck with Yun-ji.
“I prefer to use my Korean name because I am a Korean person,” Hong said between sips of an iced coffee at a stylish cafe in Seoul one recent Saturday. “Using an English name even though you are not American is a little bit strange. Your name is from your own mother and father.”
Companies in English education, tourism, trade or other globally focused industries typically have English nickname policies. They want to accommodate foreign business partners who can’t decipher between Lee Ji-yeong and Lee Ji-yeon. “They’re thoughtful people,” Hong said. “It’s to be kind to foreign people.”
She added with a laugh, “It’s too thoughtful thinking sometimes.”
The larger reason is a desire for a horizontal workplace as more employees, particularly younger ones, are educated or work outside Korea. “Younger generations think something’s wrong with it, and we all feel the need to fix this culture,” Hwang Hye-rim said.
In the hierarchical structure, employees cannot follow or share their own ideas. Decision-making is usually stymied by going through many chains of hierarchy. And projects are not necessarily led by expertise but by who has the highest title.
“ ‘You should, you must follow my commands over your own thinking,’ ” Hong said. “It’s like they’re soldiers. They are not working together.”
While start-ups such as Kakao have rejected that quasi-military structure, it’s protected at chaebol — the massive, family-owned companies such as Samsung, LG and Hyundai that essentially run Korea. Samsung alone accounts for one-fifth of Korea’s gross domestic product.
Chaebol are infamously rigid, as are the many Korean companies made in their image. People receive raises and promotions on the same schedule, according to age; desks are arranged according to position; and hiring occurs no more than twice a year, often according to test scores. It’s comfortingly logical.
So when a company instills English nicknames along with a more horizontal culture, it is removing the backbone of an organization.
Many Koreans, who often work 12-hour days at a single company for most of their lives, feel that their life identity is taken, as well.
“At first, we felt emotionally deprived,” one employee at SK Telecom, which removed most job titles in 2006, told the New York Times in 2008.
Younger Koreans and foreign workers hoping for a quicker overhaul of the hierarchical office are likely to be disappointed. This country spends more time at work than nearly any other country in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development — on average every year, 323 hours more than Americans and 394 hours more than the Japanese. There’s little reason to want to be called “Fred” or “Sally” rather than the “director” title you have dedicated your life to achieving.
Even Hong, who lived in Canada and dislikes many of Korea’s Confucian aspects, still accidentally calls her boss by the traditional title.
“Sometimes it comes out,” Hong said. “It’s a foreign company, but the people working there are totally Korean. They never discard their own essential personality.”