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When I visited Korea last time, I met my childhood friends who I hadn’t seen for a long time. As soon as we settled down on the table, we all became chatty as if we were in a talking competition. One of my dear friends started talking about how tiring and unhappy she had been from her work. She said that she had to prepare a big familial event for her boss every day after work over weeks. It was a funeral for her boss’s parents. Her time and efforts on preparing the funeral, of course, was not billed towards her working hours. I was a bit confused after listening her story. I had to ask her why she was the one who had to prepare the funeral, not her boss. She said, “I am a powerless ‘을(Eul)’ who needs to obey to ‘갑(Gap).’ There would be consequences if she said “no” to the given task. Sadly, this is an example of 갑질문화(Gap-Jil-Moon-Haw: The culture of exploiting status and position in Korea).
What is 갑질문화?
Before I explain to you what 갑질문화 is, please allow me to review some legal terms with you. It is common to find jargon such as, 갑 and 을 in Korean legal paperwork. These are pronouns which substitute for the legal parties’ full name. 갑 usually means a potential employer, whereas 을 means a future employee in most legal documents.
However, the meaning of 갑 from the above conversation was stretched to a party who owns 을 in terms of a socioeconomical status. To an extent, 을 can indicate as a slave in the twenty-first century, depending upon the severity of 갑’s unreasonable requests. 갑 tend to be impudent to their subordinates because they think their rank at work (or any other hierarchical environments) gives them immunity for their ignorant behaviors.
‘-질’ is a suffix indicating an act of doing something. Therefore, 갑질(Gap-Jil) means 갑 act like they can do whatever they want, including ordering 을 to do something out of their scope of responsibility at work. 문화(moon-hwa : the culture) means a culture. Therefore, 갑집문화 interprets as a culture of playing gap, bossing somebody around.
The History of 갑질문화
What is the origin of 갑질문화 ? I believe that it derives from a famous situation on an airline in 2014. This event even has a name, so-called “땅콩리턴”(Ttang-kong-return: “peanut return”) and it shook the Korean peninsula profoundly.
The story begins with an aircraft returning to the original gate before taking off not on a regular schedule because a daughter of Korean Air owner wasn’t quite satisfied with the quality of in-flight service. A flight attendant brought to her an unopened package of macadamia nuts, instead of serving them in a warm porcelain bowl. She overrode 항공법(hang-gong-bup: the civil aeronautics law) by forcefully ordering a pilot to return the aircraft back to the gate, in order to remove the senior flight attendant, who served the unopened macadamia package.
However, the real problem didn’t just end here. Korean Air justified the daughter’s behavior and made the flight attendants apologize to her due to their poor quality of service. The story spread out to every corner of the country. People who heard this story became outraged and furious and wondered how such things could happen in modern times. This event forced many to reexamine their own lives and behavior. Had they been treating others unfairly?
I believe 갑질문화 is an unfortunate by-product of materialism, which can sicken many other societies in the world. I am utterly saddened that my family and friends, including me, might have been dealing with this ugly part of our culture without realizing it.
Many Koreans are aware of the seriousness of갑질문화 and we all know it needs to be eradicated sooner or later. I am hopeful that this might be a chance for Koreans to turn history upside down in order to make a better place to live. Because, facing the ugliness of truth is usually a good starting point before a new history is written.