A Korean friend of mine spoke at length about an older woman whom she dearly loved and enjoyed spending time with. When we asked about the woman’s name, we were surprised to know that our friend did not know her name!
In Korean culture (as in other Asian cultures), honorific terms are commonplace. Not using them would deem a person disrespectful and lacking shame. Our friend had so long called her by the conventional greeting for an elder woman (akin to “Auntie”); as a result, she simply did not know her dear friend’s name.
Have Westerners Lost Respect?
In the West, college students increasingly call professors by their first name. If a professor insists on called “Doctor” or “Professor”, (s)he would be criticized as uppity or arrogant.
In previous generations, kids (and adults) might greet someone as “Dr. and Mrs. Smith.” Parents who enforce such etiquette today would be deemed strict and even overbearing. If the truth be told, most kids no longer verbally distinguish “Mrs.” and “Miss.”
For multiple generations, parents in the South have trained their children to show respect in a way different than people in the North and West. In years past, I pitied the child who did not say “Yes, sir” and “No, ma’am” to their elders. By contrast, “yes” or simply “yah” suffice in other regions of the country.
Do Formalities Respect or Shame?
These regional differences in part stems from varying degrees of individualism and collectivism. Northerners and Westerners tend to be more egalitarian than their Southern counterparts. When people use formal titles and greetings, they risk committing two social sins.
(1) The social elder risks appearing “better” than the people around him or her.
If she uses a title of respect, others will assume the worst and label her with various negative terms (e.g., proud, snooty, high and mighty, “she thinks she’s better than me”).
(2) Some people think formal titles “shame” those without such titles or positions.
In a day where “everyone is equal and special,” distinctions are anathema; ironically, in such an environment, people crave for attention and social standing even more. One is supposed to be an “individual” yet, at the same time, he is responsible not make others feel bad when he stands out.Consider a simple example like calling a woman “Mrs” or “Ms.” How many people would frown on our insisting that we use these terms? Why? Calling a woman “Ms” would be called “single shaming.” Is it really? Is not the problem that objectors themselves make value judgments about being single or married?
Does calling someone “sir” or “ma’am” shame a child for being young?
Does refer to a person as “Dr.” or “Professor” imply others are dumb?
I have seen a similar dynamic in the missions world. Pastors in America are fond of saying “Everyone is a missionary.” When you challenge that language, many Christians get upset as though “missionary” were somehow a “higher” title (which is ridiculous). Sadly, what this indicates is that they see “missionary” as somehow implying someone higher than the name “Christian.”
In short, Westerners have twisted terms of respect into names of shame.
What do we lose?
What do we gain when we forsake honorifics? Nothing.
We do not gain a sense of unity and equality. After all, everyone still knows who are the most accomplished people among them. When groups are reluctant to recognize those worthy of honor, we only foster further competition. We also increase the sense of disrespect and offense when those deserving of honor are ignored.
What is lost when we accept this new egalitarian norm?
We lose a sense for the values that go behind such titles. For example, why should we honor our elders? Because life experience affords them wisdom and knowledge that can help the community. They have labored in ways that younger generations have not. Younger people, therefore, do not think to listen to their elders.
Verbal and visual expressions of respect remind us that some people, in many situations, have more to offer than others. No wonder too many students think they know better than their professors.
Certainly, exceptions exist. Not every older person has wisdom. Some have only become more foolish. Likewise, not all teachers are equally competent. This reality does not negate what I’ve said above.
We sometimes respect positions, not persons. Disrespecting a person is not worth the cost of disrespecting a position (e.g., the presidency). That’s a practical argument. Biblically speaking, we have better reasons to show respect.
“Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.” (1 Peter 2:17)
Notice Peter even says to honor pagan emperors who allow or sanction persecution of the church!
In the church? Paul writes,
“Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.” (Rom 12:10)
We will have a hard time teaching others to honor God when we hardly know how to respect one another.