Since the inspiration for Korean week was the paper I am co-authoring (with a Korean linguistics teacher) about apologies in Korea, I decided to copy a bit of it here. This paper is rather far afield for me, occurring in a subfield of linguistics called sociolinguistics. Sociolinguistics deals with how social structures and relationships are expressed in language, as well as how language is used to maintain those relationships. This is a very different sort of focus than, say, grammar study.
One large part of this subfield studies what is called politeness, which isn't stuff like holding the door for someone or saying "bless you" when they sneeze. It's really a study of relationships and how those are maintained. One of the most popular theories of politeness is called face theory. The idea is that all individuals have this things called "face". Face has been defined as the public image that someone holds up for others, or alternatively as the desire to act freely. Whenever someone threatens another's face, then you have to do some sort of action to restore peace. One part of this is apologizing. If I threaten your face, i.e., harming your public image or interfering with you, then I must apologize.
In this paper, my co-author and I are taking a big collection of apology examples in Korea that she collected for her dissertation and trying to modify face theory based on the data. One way in which we are hoping to change face theory is to say that face does not just belong to individuals. It can also belong to groups of people, culturally defined groups. In America, one might build a case that a family can have face, such that it is possible to harm the face of an entire family. This is the case in Korean society as well. However, Korean culture seems to allow for the entire Korean ethnicity to have a face as well. This face of a nation can require apologies to the whole nation. Additionally, the bad actions of a few can be seen as harming the face of the entire group.
In the bit below, we are discussing the Viriginia Tech shootings earlier this year. I'd love any thoughts you have. The stuff below is going to come across rather academic-ey, because it is, though I chose this section because it isn't all that lingo-driven. The excerpt:
Further, evidence of a face-bearing group comes from the tragic case of a mass murder at Virginia Tech University in 2007, at the hands of someone who had immigrated to the United States from Korea at the age of eight. After this event, many Koreans, and Korean-Americans, expressed the idea that the murderer's actions brought shame to all Koreans. For instance, the South Korean Ambassador to the United States, Lee Tae-sik, stated that Korean-Americans were shamed and should repent with a day of fast for each victim. (Brewington, 2007). State Senator Paull Shin of Washington State publicly apologized in the senate chambers, adding “it hurts me deeply, knowing what happened to Korea and how much the U.S. helped. This is not the way to pay back the blessings we received” (Iwasaki, 2007). Shin associates the attacking student’s actions with what the entire Korean people owe to the United States.
These comments reinforce the notion that groups that can bear face are indeed culturally defined, as anecdotal questioning of Caucasian Americans drew a unified response that they would not have apologized in similar circumstances. In fact, the concept that Koreans as an ethnic group do share a single group face is highly controversial in the Korean-American community. Professor Kyeyoung Park of the University of California at Los Angeles' Center for Korean Studies, for instance, was publicly quoted as saying, "Some of them [Korean-Americans] feel truly responsible, even though it is ridiculous to think they are responsible for the actions of this person" (Brewington, 2007).
Indeed, even Korean-Americans at the same university and of the same approximate age expressed opposing views on the matter. Jihye Kim, president of the Korean Student Union at the University of Washington, stated, "Personally, after hearing about the criminal's racial background, I felt as if I am the one who caused the tragedy. I couldn't make eye contact with others. I greatly apologize for those who are closely related to the victims." Meanwhile, his fellow student at the same university, Kiwon Suh, president of the Korean Student Association, stated a completely different sentiment. "Just because he's Korean or Korean American doesn't mean I have to go around apologizing for what he did. He didn't do anything representative of Korea by his horrible doing" (Iwasaki, 2007).
It would appear from these statements that the idea of Koreans as an entire ethnicity bearing face varies greatly among Korean-Americans, a variability seemingly much greater than in Korea itself. This assertion, however, is based simply upon the sort of evidence presented here, not from a designed socio-linguistic study of face concepts among Koreans and Korean-Americans and so awaits stronger empirical support. Indeed, the quantification and documentation of the variability, and change through time, of which groups can possess face, perhaps using traditional Labovian sociolinguistic methods, appears like a largely unexplored subfield. In short, while the types of face, positive, negative, and covenant, might be universal; the entities that bear face are cultural and variable.
Part of my quandry is in terms of referring to people by ethnicity. In general, I hate doing it; I'd rather just talk about humans with names rather than ethnicities and all the problems associated with it So if you have any advice on that...? The subfield idea mentioned in the last paragraph could be the most important point going forward in the entire essay. Sociology, and linguistics to some degree, are frequently stuck talking about cultures using the terms "collectivist" and "individualist". Virtually, all of the East Asian traditional cultures are supposed to be collectivist, while "Western" ones are supposed to be individualist. However, everyone knows that these labels greatly over simplify everything and cover up almost as much as they reveal. However, no better terms are around. If you refuse to use some term, then it's like saying Korea and the U.S. are identical, which they clearly are not. Anyway, I wonder if we can use this idea of group face to describe things a lot more accurately. In this proposed framework, Korea is not just collectivist and the U.S. a bunch of rugged individualists. Instead, Korea lets certain groups have face, while the U.S. allows for a different set to have face.