When I first started to learn German, we learned the word “du” (you, which can be used between friends) and “Sie” (also you, which can be used with strangers, professional relationships or as polite form to address (older) people).
We have this differentiation in the Chinese language as well. When we talk with friends, we also use “du”, when we talk with people who we should respect, e. g. teachers and parents, we use “Sie”.
It was my turn to do a language practice, in which I played the child and a classmate played the parent. So I started with the question „Was möchten Sie heute zu Abend essen?“ (What do you (Sie) want to eat tonight?). My German teacher corrected me, telling me I should use “Du” for my fake parent, which I rejected and argued that I need to show respect to the parent. My German teacher said “You are pretending you were German, you call your parent with a ‘Du’.”
I had great difficulties with following the instruction from the teacher because there are rules I must follow in my moral system, such as respecting parents, teachers and elder people by speaking respectfully and not arguing with them.
This moral system has its origin in our social rules and living philosophy, tracing back to ancient China, where the governor used philosophers, such as Confucius, to teach people about personal morality, the correctness of social relationships and more.
Hierarchy is a very important topic. Elder people must be respected, this is the rule.
A friend of mine from the US was doing military services in Korea. He told me that he’s always been surprised by how the younger Korean soldiers have no choice but to respect every decision the elder soldiers have made, no matter how irrational some decisions were. He as an American doesn’t do what the Korean men do and often argued with elder soldiers, which often surprised his fellow Korean colleagues.
I’ve also noticed in Korean reality shows, that the first thing they do after saying “hi” is to ask the age of the others, so they can make an order. Often they don’t even mention their names anymore, instead, people call each other older brother or sister and younger brother or sister. The younger ones need to use “Sie” to address the older ones. It is also the younger ones‘ job to make sure the older ones are feeling comfortable and respected.
A good mix of ages in each focus group?
When we recruit participants for focus groups in Korea and Japan, we always need to inform our western clients that it is not recommended to have a varrying mix of ages in the group due to the “respect culture”.
For example, in Japan and Korea, if someone is even one year older than the others, this older person is considered ‘superior’ and everyone else must talk to them more politely. In a discussion, if the opinion of a person in their 50s is completely different from the opinion of a person in their 20s. People in their 20s will stop expressing their opinion since they’re very careful not to be considered rude to people in their 50s. Thus, we separate the participants by age into different focus groups in Japan and Korea.
In China, the situation is slightly different. We still respect older people, but the rapid development of China’s economy and technology has “taught” older people a lesson: New things are often better, and being older means being outdated if one doesn’t learn. Thus we notice in focus groups that older people tend to be more careful expressing their opinion because due to this fear of being “outdated”. In order to make them feel more comfortable, we often put at least 2 older people in one group so they can find company. For a lot of topics, people over 45 years will not be recruited at all as they are considered „outdated”.
This often makes me sad, because I often ask myself: Will society abandon me when I get older? – But this is another topic.
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Author: Yue Liu, Spiegel Institut Mannheim