Of the many challenges that present themselves to the furrner working in a big Korean company, one of the most confounding is surely the system of titles. From the very lowest (usually 사원, or sawon, which translates as “employee”) up through 팀장 (timjang or “team leader”) and ascending to the giddy heights of 회장 (hoejang, “president” or “chairman”), the Korean employee is defined by his or her title. In many workplaces, staff senior to you no longer have a name, they have only a rank — in three years working together at the inflight magazine, I never once addressed our editor-in-chief even by his family name. He was, simply, Mr Editor-in-Chief (편집장님, pyeonjibjangnim), and no amount of informal chats, bawdy jokes or late-night drinking sessions could alter that hierarchical bond. (An embarrassing upshot of this was that with many senior staff, I was as ignorant of their real names three years into our working relationship as I was on the day we met.)
Of course, Korea is, as we outsiders are always quick to point out, a very hierarchical place. Because verb usage, titles and even words change depending on who you are talking to (on their birthdays, older people or higher ups are wished a happy 생신 [saengsin], while everyone else merely has a happy 생일 [saengil]), titles really matter. As with many other things, I’d often assumed the preoccupation with rank to be a quaintly Korean trait, and something that had fallen by the wayside in the ever-more informal, ever-more egalitarian UK (and the West more generally). But with my job change at the beginning of this year, I was reminded that the fixation with titles — albeit in very different cultural and linguistic contexts — extends across the corporate world and is actually on the increase. This phenomenon, as I learned in an amusing Economist piece last week, is called “title inflation”:
When it comes to job titles, we live in an age of rampant inflation. Everybody you come across seems to be a chief or president of some variety. Title inflation is producing its own vocabulary: “uptitling” and “title-fluffing”. It is also producing technological aids. One website provides a simple formula: just take your job title, mix in a few grand words, such as “global”, “interface” and “customer”, and hey presto.
I was (and am) no big fan of the rigid hierarchies and stratified language of the Korean office. But it sometimes seems to me that, especially at the workplace, a relationship built on a pecking order is more natural and comforting than we ostensibly egalitarian Westerners would like to admit. The usual tendency is to characterise Korea’s hierarchical set-ups as inherently exploitative; but that, from my almost six-year perspective of working in Korean offices, seems way too simplistic. Though much has changed in Korea itself, I think there is something innately reassuring about knowing that in the years to come, you will be afforded a degree of respect by dint of your length of service and (however mildly) increased rank. Perhaps, with this “title inflation,” Westerners are trying to recapture that sense of self-worth that “horizontal” workplaces have done so much to erode.
Or have I just been in Korea too long?