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When I was living in Korea for a few years, one of my responsibilities was teaching new workers some Korean. As to not upset clients (adults mainly) by speaking to them too informally, we always taught new workers to use 하십시오체 or 해요체. Moreover, they were instructed that 반말 was never to be used.

However, I occasionally saw some of my colleagues talking to children in 해요체, or even worse, 하십시오체. This always felt awkward, but I never quite knew if it was actually weird to talk to kids in 해요체 instead of 반말, or if it just felt weird to me personally.

Is it okay to talk to children in 해요체, or should it be avoided?

  • Wow 친짜 고맙습니다 that was really helpful explenation – Kurt Sep 6 '19 at 3:17
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If you are going to speak 해요 to young children on any extended basis, you'd better look like Mary Poppins and be guiding them on their activities. (I.e. it is a formal setting, with you in a public role.)

Otherwise--e.g. if you looked serious or just plain neutral--it will be a confusing experience for them. Somewhat like, if your dad called you 'sir,' you know you are in trouble.

하십시오 (or any respectful speech using 시) to children may not even register. The child may be unable to believe he was thus being addressed.

All this assumes the speaker is apparently a Korean. If he looks or sounds as though he were just learning the language, the child would naturally make allowances for that.

If the child were high school age, the setting might make a difference. To your friend's children, you would use 반말 from the start. If they are random kids in the street, you can go either way (assuming of course you looked sufficiently older). I myself always use 존대말 in this latter case.

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I was taught at 연세어학당 (Yonsei University Language Institute) that there are two basic forms:

반말 - ex: 해, 해봐, 이리 와, 빨리가

and

존댓말 - ex: 해요, 해보세요, 이리 오세요, 빨리 가세요 (also including higher honorifics like) 합니다, 하십시오, 이쪽으로 오십시오, 서들러서 가십시오

Now, I have a habit of speaking to children that I don't know well in 존댓말, but I have been told that I don't have to honor them that way. But I'm southern, and I speak to my children with sir and ma'am, because I want them to speak that way; I'm training them while also being polite to them.

If a child is misbehaving, I would definitely be scolding them in 반말. If I were native Korean or even looked Korean, I probably would always be speaking to them in 반말.

Korean Culture dictates that you use 반말 if someone is your age or younger.

My Personal "I'm not Asian" rule is that I speak 존댓말 more often than not, because, in my book, being awkward is more forgivable than being rude.

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There are four formal expressions and two informal expressions. Formal expressions are used in official situations or for people who are not that familiar with you.

  • Formal expressions

    1. 합쇼체/하십시오체( ~하십시오, ~습니다, ~입니다. ~입니까?): The most honorary term. It is only used for people like your boss. Or if you present in public with a lot of audiences, you can use it.
    2. 하오체(~하시오, ~이오?, ~소): Not much used in these days, but it is also a honorary term between two people who are equal. In old days, husband and wife talked to each other in 하오체.
    3. 하게체(~하게, ~하게나, ~인가?): When an elder talks to someone who is lower than oneself, he or she uses this expression. But it is not that humble. Using 하게체 is considered elegant. For example, when a father-in-law talks to his son-in-law, he can use it.
    4. 해라체(~해라): It is indeed a humble expression. It is okay when you use it for someone who is obviously lower than you(e.g. your child, brother or sister who is much younger than you) but using 해라체 can be considered quite rude sometimes. Especially, using it in front of someone you don't know is considered extremely rude and inappropriate.
  • Informal expressions

    1. 해요체(~요, ~해요): It is an honorific term, but it can used for everyone who listens to you. It means you can use it in front of both little children and old people. Many people talks in this expression to their children. Teachers prefer to use it most. I recommend people who are not a native speaker to use 해요체 as a default. It is the easiest way and nobody will think you are rude. If you become more used to Korean language, then you can try using other expressions.
    2. 해체(~해, ~야?): It is the informal version of 해라체. You can use it in very close relationships. I bet most of people talk to their children in 해체. But if you use in formal situations, others may think you are childish.

해라체, 해요체, 해체 can be used for your children. It is not awkward to use 해요 for your children. In contrast, using ~하십시오, ~이오, ~하게 is considered something strange.

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