Opinion: Was Yewon Rude to Speak Informally to Lee Tae Im?

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When we broke the news about the emergence of a leaked video which seemed to refute Star Empire and Dispatch’s story about Yewon’s behavior on the set of “Tutoring Across Generations,” we received a lot of questions in our comments section about the nuances of the conversation, as well as the context of the senior-junior relationship. So we’d like to explain to our readers how Koreans perceived the conversation which took place between Lee Tae Im and Yewon, and why the exchange might have gone down the way it did.

Before we begin, we should clarify that we are not defining on an absolute level what actually happened in the video. Even native speakers who understand the conversation still perceive it differently; in fact, it’s this ambiguity which most likely led to the conflict in the first place. Plus, the audio quality and enunciation are unclear at certain points, leading to more confusion (on our end, although probably not theirs). Let’s take a line-by-line look:

Yewon (formal): “Are you cold?”

Lee Tae Im (informal): “It’s so cold. Do you want to go in [the water] too?”

Yewon (informal): “No.” The Korean word she used (andwae) has a connotation of “I don’t want to.”

Lee Tae Im (informal): “You don’t like it? You just like watching someone else do it?” Lee Tae Im has just emerged from spending a half-hour in the water, so she seems to be annoyed by this.

Yewon (informal): “No, no.”

Lee Tae Im (informal): “Why are you talking informally? Are you looking down on me?”

Yewon (unclear): “No, no.” Her enunciation on the last “no” (aniyo vs. aniya) is unclear. The first “no” is informal, and then the last could be either formal or informal. It seems like most news sources list it as formal speech; this is what the Soompi team heard on the audio as well.

Yewon (formal): “Because [the water] is cold. Unni, you don’t like me, right?” Here, Yewon appears to be staring at Lee Tae Im in a way that might be construed as a glare or squint.

Lee Tae Im (informal): “Why are you looking at me with those eyes? You think you’re so great?” Yewon continues to stare.

[Lee Tae Im curses Yewon and leaves.]

Yewon (unclear): “… crazy… Why is she like that?” She may be saying “That crazy b***h,” which is how it seems that most people heard it. But it’s also possible that she is just saying “She’s crazy.”

This conversation can be understood a few ways. Some English sources are claiming that Yewon continued to use banmal (informal speech) even after Lee Tae Im expressed her displeasure with it, which would be another level of rudeness altogether. But it seems probable that Yewon reverted to formal speech immediately after being called out. Likewise, it seems probable that Yewon called Lee Tae Im a “crazy b***h,” but possibly out of earshot.

However, even with the unclear video, we can see that Yewon does use banmal with Lee Tae Im at one point. And she also clearly asks Lee Tae Im, “You don’t like me, right?” Not knowing the rest, we’ll limit our explanation to these two variables.

First, we’ll address the usage of banmal versus jondaemal (formal speech) in this particular relationship. Lee Tae Im is three years older than Yewon, and she has been working in the business for a few years more than Yewon, who is still considered a rookie. If she wants to be polite and professional, she may still use jondaemal with Yewon, even as a senior. She chose not to, but this is well within her right. Yewon, on the other hand, is expected to use jondaemal when speaking to Lee Tae Im. Netizens have commented that this exchange, between two different people, might result in a fistfight. While that might be an overstatement, it’s safe to say that Yewon’s usage of banmal here is inappropriate, while Lee Tae Im’s is not particularly noteworthy.

Next, we will address a couple claims we’ve read to justify why Yewon might be using banmal:

“Yewon used banmal to try to bridge the gap with Lee Tae Im and develop a closer relationship with her.” This seems to be the most repeated statement we’ve read. In Korea, just as anywhere else, it can be flattering when someone you’re getting to know starts to speak in a more intimate tone. The only difference is that in Korea, it’s the older person who invites the younger person to switch to informal speech. It’s usually not the place of the younger person to make that decision for herself. Based on her response, we’re guessing that Lee Tae Im made no such overtures to Yewon, which is expected since they have just met.

“Yewon probably used banmal since Lee Tae Im was doing the same. She’s just being fair-minded.” Again, not a likely mentality for someone who has been exposed to these levels of speech her entire life.

“Yewon was acting casual because this was a reality show.” This is a possibility, if the cameras were rolling (and they probably were). Yewon, like many variety show guests, has demonstrated regular usage of banmal while on air. On a variety show, the atmosphere is meant to be convivial and casual, so people often use banmal when they might not otherwise. In that context, it may not be totally eyebrow-raising. But again, it doesn’t seem like netizens are justifying that this was appropriate.

“Yewon was acting cute; that’s just her personality.” To us, this seems like the most probable justification in Yewon’s favor. It’s true that certain people, especially some young females, have a tendency to use banmal in situations where it might not be considered technically appropriate. But anyone who uses banmal in this way is relying heavily on his or her personal charm to ensure that the other person doesn’t take it offensively, and therefore needs to be careful about the way he or she employs it. In the best case scenario, Yewon was being thoughtless; in the worst case, disrespectful.

In any case, Yewon does then revert to formal speech – to say to Lee Tae Im, “Because it’s cold. Unni, you don’t like me, right?” We read some comments claiming that this question was a way for Yewon to express her care and concern for Lee Tae Im. We don’t think that’s the case. Even in English, we can’t see how this question would serve to defuse a tense situation, and in Korean, especially to an older colleague, it’s inappropriately direct and impolite. That being said, the Soompi team is divided on this one. Some of us find this question overly antagonistic, especially coupled with her direct stare. The rest of us find the question to be a reasonable defense against someone who is unreasonably angry. Because this much we can agree upon – Lee Tae Im completely overreacted to Yewon’s usage of banmal. We’re just not covering it here because this seems to be undisputed.

All in all, it seems like both parties behaved inappropriately. Yewon should not have used banmal in the first place, and should have done a better job of trying to walk it back, and Lee Tae Im reacted very badly. It seems clear that one or both parties were stressed out or angry going into this conversation, and this was just the final straw. Without media coverage, everyone might have apologized and moved on, but as we all know, it played out in a very public manner.

We believe that this altercation was overblown and should not necessarily constitute the end of anyone’s career. However, we also believe that Star Empire and Dispatch have an obligation to retract their statement that Yewon never used banmal or spoke inappropriately to Lee Tae Im, since it seems to have been untruthful. Since their statement was unfortunately used to damage Lee Tae Im’s reputation and career, we believe too that they have an obligation to issue an apology to Lee Tae Im.

As always, feel free to use the comments section if you have more questions or totally disagree.

Disclaimer: This article was written with the input of Soompi staff and friends who are native Koreans or Korean Americans and Korean Australians ^_^, all of whom are fluent in Korean. However, as it is a condensed summary, and not every member of staff was consulted, the opinions stated here do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial team as a whole. 

Update: This article has been updated to mention the responsibility of Yewon’s agency in making a misstatement about Yewon’s role in this video.