What Is Aegyo And How Can We Kill It? Part Three
See Part Two
OK, so you’re a Korean girl. You’ve got your fair share of problems: school, pressure at home, a disturbing amount of attention from certain corners of the Foreigners-in-Korea-blogosphere, and so on. You’re adrift in a sea of people and institutions, each with their own interest in you and each with their own self-serving motives. You have your own fair share of self-serving motives as well, but how are you to navigate–no, how are you to dominate– in this world of constant pressure?
You do what everybody else does. You work your strengths, downplay your weaknesses, seek alliances, destroy rivals, etc. You are a being of (bounded) rationality in a sea of others like you.
You live in a superficial society driven by image and personal connections. It is as important to be liked and well regarded as it is to be competent. Like the people around you, you feel the need to be acceptable to the majority of people, in particular because it is these people and their feelings towards you which form the basis on which you will be treated. There is an emphasis placed on age which means that you will spend your life developing two personas.
The first is your persona vis-a-vis older people. In this persona you have a bounded range of options. You can be a surrogate daughter to those older than you. You can try to make them feel young. You can show them extreme deference and demonstrate your faithfulness and obedience. All of these options are predicated on the age dynamic between you and these older people. As a Korean interacting with older Koreans, you have it in your power to exploit the image of youth in any way you see fit. As a Korean girl, you have an advantage (but by no means a monopoly) in cannily exploiting the trappings of youth to endear yourself to those older than you.
We recognize this as aegyo (애교). As stated, it is not exclusive to girls. Many a Korean man emphasizes the hyung (형, ‘older brother’) in their relationships with older men in order to bring out the protective older brother in their superiors.
This brings us to the second persona, you vis-a-vis younger people. Again as a Korean you are free to embody the idea of an older person in any way you please. You can be magnanimous, imperious, nurturing, threatening, protective, or any combination thereof. You have the ability to use this dynamic to whatever end you see fit, whether it be exploitation, group building, the creation of a surrogate family, self-aggrandizement, etc. You are, however, bounded again by certain preconditions. One of those is your simple biological predilection for the weak. We all love cartoon characters because they share features with human babies. They’re fairly irresistible. So when someone younger than us confronts us with something irrefutably babyish and endearing, our natural impulse to despotism is stopped in its tracks. We may not even realize that we allow ourselves to be swayed by something as primal as a little fleshy bump or a lilt in the voice, but we are, imperceptibly and irresistibly.
So you’re a Korean girl, in a world where people older than you wield primary power over most things in your life. How would your interaction with them not include at least some element of aegyo?
The decision to put on the aegyo is a rational choice made by somewhat rational actors. Tomorrow I’ll tell you why it’s also a sign of a diseased society. Same time! Same URL! Don’t touch that mouse! I mean, except to click refresh.