Requested on my previous Word Wednesday by Valerie was how to say, “How are you?” and “I’m fine”.
Unfortunately I’m not going to fulfill her request.
I’d like to stress, however, that this isn’t because I’m an insolent dickhead, because there’s a good reason behind it. In fact I’m really happy that she requested it in the first place because it makes for an interesting conversation topic (oh god I really am turning into a teacher…).
Koreans don’t say, “How are you”.
This greeting and phrase is strictly an Anglicism in Korean culture, and any Korean who asks a waygook (foreigner) how they are has learned it at school from teachers like me. My co-teacher once praised another co-worker for being “the only Korean to ever ask the question naturally”.
Some websites, like this one, will translate the expression, making it sound something like this:
Jake: (How are you?) “잘 지내셨어요?” jal jinaesyeosseoyo [chahl jee-nay-see-yaw-ssaw-yoh]
Lady Rainicorn: (Yes, I’m fine) “네. 잘 지냈어요.” nae. jaljinaesseoyo. [nay chahl jee-nay-ssaw-yoh]
I’m going to tell you to ignore those phrases however, because I’m going to teach you something else at the end of this post: I only add that to show you that yes, strictly speaking it does translate, but if you say that to a Korean they’d have to take a moment to think about the response – if they respond at all.
Where we answer”fine” without second thought (and expect it, lest we receive the dreaded “I’m actually shitty, and I’m going to tell you about all my problems”), Koreans actually have to stop, do a process of self-reflection, determine their state of being, and then answer. So most of the time they’re just confused by the question.
This is why you’ll also notice that Korean phrasebooks don’t include it in their expressions.
When I first saw its absence in my little Lonely Planet pocketbook, I was extremely frustrated because for me (and for most other speakers of most other languages) asking, “How are you?” is a vital process of greeting someone. And honestly, how else do you greet someone?
“How are you?”
“How’s it going?”
“How have you been?”
“How have you been keeping?”
These are all things we say to each other when we meet. Maybe it’s my temporary lack of imagination, but I truly cannot think of any other greeting that doesn’t relate to the above. (If you think of something else, please feel free to shame me by posting in the comments section).
I have a theory on why this is, expanded in my post on couple culture in South Korea. But to paraphrase, I hypothesize that Koreans don’t say “How are you?” / “Fine?” because there isn’t a focus on the individual here. What there is focus on is community. In the aforementioned post, I also brought up how Koreans sometimes greet with, “Have you eaten yet/Did you have a meal yet?” (밥은 드셨어요? / bameun deusyeosseoyo [bah-meuhn deuh-see-yaw-ssaw-yoh]). Said expression in an indirect offering of one’s self as a meal-buddy (due to the cultural aspect that no one eats alone). This is probably one of the few greetings that they will use, although it isn’t always practical to say it.
As such, the most common way of greeting someone in Korean isn’t “How are you?” but “Anyeonghasaeyo”, or “Do you have peace?” It’s kind of the same (in a very broad sense of the word “same”), but more importantly the function is on a similar wavelength.
But since I already taught you all how to say hello in my previous Word Wednesday, I’m going to teach you something else that is related to the community focus. It’s also going to be particularly useful to you, Valerie when you buy food from the Korean depanneur!
The phrase comes in a pair of two (very similar so don’t be intimidated!)
Expression: 잘 먹겠습니다 jal meogaeseumnida (chahl maw-geh-soom-nee-tah)
Definition: Simply, “I will eat well”. You say this before a meal – which will particularly impress your hosts if you’re at their dinner table or they’re treating you out to a meal. It’s the equivalent of saying, “Bon appetit” before a meal with a touch more gratitude towards those who have made the food possible. You can also say it if you’re friendly with the people who are serving you food you’re paying for, such as if you know the waiter/chef or even just those behind the counter at a dep (Val!).
Its sister phrase is after the meal is finished.
Expression: 잘 먹었습니다 jal meogeoseumnida (chahl maw-goh-soom-nee-tah)
Definition: Again, very simply, “I have eaten well”. The only difference between the two is you say “maw-GEH-soom” before the meal, and “maw-GOH-soom” after. It’s a matter of future vs past tense, and once you’ve memorized which one is said where, you’ll be the politest person around! I like to use the trick of “GOH” sounds like “go”, aka “I’m going to go now that I’ve finished eating”.
I use both these phrases when getting my lunch at the canteen every day, and the cafeteria ladies are always tickled pink. Honestly, anytime you ever make an effort to speak Korean to a Korean, they’re beside themselves.
So go hence and bring these words of food gratitude into the world, young padawans!
And as always, if there’s a word/phrase you really want to learn, just leave a comment.