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[Uniquely Korean] ‘Seonbae’ takes precedence in Korea

A number of foreigners in Korea, including celebrities such as Australian comedian Sam Hammington, U.S. baseball player Mike Loree and French model and actor Fabien Yoon, have confessed that the most peculiar aspect of Korea was its senior-junior culture.

In word-to-word translation, the terms “senior” and “junior” could be put as “seonbae” and “hubae” but the Korean version actually has a unique connotation which creates a strict hierarchy.

Under the seonbae-hubae system, people’s “ranks” are decided on whether a person joined the corresponding organization before another. The hierarchy thus established is quite irreversible, as expressed in the often-spoken sentence “once a seonbae, forever a seonbae.”

“We do not have such idea of order of rank in Australia,” said Hammington several times in past interviews, when asked to describe the feature of the Korean culture.

“People may express respect for those who have much experience in a specific sector but that would be out of courtesy, not obedience.”

Mike Loree, a pitcher for KT’s baseball team, also admitted that it was not easy getting accustomed to the concept of seonbae when he joined the team in January.

“Taiwan, too, has this Asian senior-junior culture but the hierarchy is not as strong as in Korea,” said the U.S. sportsman who was previously in the Taiwanese professional baseball league.

“But I have now come to understand that this is a unique way for Koreans to respect and care for each other.”

Loree may be a lucky one, seeing the positive aspect of the Korean way. The high-handed rule of the senior over the junior is often pointed out as an obstacle to free communication and creativity.

“The hierarchic order based on seniority is considered important in establishing discipline, especially in object-driven sectors such as sports,” said Kwon Soon-yong, a professor of sports sociology at Seoul National University.

But an excessive abuse of authority, based on seniority, is a distorted form of leadership, he explained.

The authoritarian “seonbae” culture may also block communication and deter an organization from potential growth, a survey showed.

According to a survey conducted by the Korea Chamber of Commerce and Industry last year, 61.8 percent of the 100 respondents said that the stiff communication system based on seniority was the top reason that their company culture fell behind that of global leaders such as Google or Facebook.

Also, 87.5 percent said that the conservative and authoritarian culture should be changed in order for the company to achieve sustainable growth.

By Bae Hyun-jung (
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Korea Herald daum