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In a Korean book there is the following dialogue:

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남 :네, 총무과뚜안입니다. 아, 사장님. 안녕하십니까? 박 과장님이요? 박 과장님께서는 좀 전에 일 때문에 거래처에 가셨는데요. 네, 그럼 제가 지금 박 과장님께 전화해서 빨리 사장님께 전화하시라 고 말씀드리겠습니다. 네 수고하십시요. 여: 뚜안 씨, 지금 사장님과 통화하시면서 그렇게 말한 거예요? 사장님께 과장님에 대한 이야기를 할 때에는 '과장님은 거래처에 가셨는데요.'라고 하 면 안 되고 '거래처에 갔는데요.'라고 이야기해야 하는데….

남: 네? 그게 무슨 말이에요? 과장님은 저보다 윗싸람 이잖아요.

여: 그렇지만 과장님이 뚜안 씨한데 윗사람이지 사장님한테 윗사람은 아니잖아요. 그렇기 때문에 과장 님보다 윗사람이신 사장님께 말할 때엔 과장님을 높여서 말하면 안 돼요. 그리고 또, 어른께 '수고 하십시오.'라고 인사를 해도 안 되고요.

According to this book, when talking to 사장님 about 과장님, we should not use 존댓말 with 과장님. However, I asked a Korean friend and she said you should use 존댓말 with all 윗사람. So which one is correct?

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I think the best way to say that sentence is:

박 과장님한테 전화해서 빨리 사장님 전화드리라고 말씀드리겠습니다 (or 전하겠습니다).

You're supposed to raise the person you're speaking with more, especially when they are at a higher position as in this case. You can use the usual mid-level polite forms for the other person.

What the book explains is the traditional way of using relative honorifics, like when talking to your grandfather, you don't raise your father since your father is a son to your grandfather (i.e. you tailor the language to grandfather). This used to be the standard way in the old days, such that a daughter refers to her husband with a humbling term like 아비/애비 and a son his wife as 에미 when talking to parents or parents in law. But this practice is rapidly changing in modern times.

First off, very few families live with their parents in the same house these days, so there are fewer and fewer occasions to use such honorifics. And to the new generations, such an old custom may seem too extreme and weird. People nowadays tend to think the universal idea of all humans being equal is a higher principle than showing respect even changing the language just because someone is older or at a higher social position. You certainly cannot do away with honorifics embedded in the language, but the general trend is toward using simpler phrases.

Secondly, we should consider the work environment. Workplaces strive to be efficient, and using such kind of complicated languages goes against this. Most companies want their employees use simple and pleasant language. If 박 과장님 is older and higher than you, using 님 and reasonable honorifics is a sensible thing to do even when talking to the president in my opinion. Using similar language all around is the easiest, and big corporations encourage this (I've read news reports on this). So I personally think your friend is right and your book needs updating. But note that all this may vary with people and places.

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  • Although, using 사장님에게 instead of 사장님께 may be more respectful Oct 6, 2023 at 18:36
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    Hmm, I don't know why that should be. 께 is the more respectful version of 에게, and in this example it refers to 사장님 who is the big boss, so I would say 께 is the right particle.
    – Tony
    Oct 6, 2023 at 22:54
  • 사장님께 is considered more respectful than 사장님에게. According to 표준국어대사전, '-께' is the honorific form of '-에게'.
    – jungyh0218
    Oct 16, 2023 at 23:20
  • They are right, I made a mistake there. Dec 28, 2023 at 14:32

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