Social psychology of hierarchical interactions: Politeness and hierarchical relational stress

Chanki Moon, Gyuseog Han

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Hierarchical relationship is a very prominent feature of Korean society. We conducted three empirical investigations on this phenomenon from a social psychological perspective. Study 1 and 2 examined the politeness behavior in writing a letter as affected by the status of interacting partner’s relative status (senior/equal/ junior in Study 1 and senior/ junior in Study 2). In addition we examined the effect of social distance between the interacting parties and the effect of gender. The results revealed that the letters written to the superior was more polite and all adopting honorifics than those written to the junior/equal in placing a request (Study 1) and in declining a request placed on (Study 2). This hierarchy effect was equally strong both gender and hold even when the relationship is close although the extent was decreased (Study 2). This result is
different from the theory of politeness behavior (Brown & Levinson, 1987). This robustness of hierarchy effect regardless of context is not accountable from a strategic use of politeness. We must attend to the normative power of hierarchy observed in Korean society. Study 3 investigated the phenomena related to relational stress of hierarchy. 200 college respondents rated their feeling of discomfort to each of the behavior violating interactional norm by the partner. The relationship with partner was close or distant and senior or junior. The
findings showed that when the violations were committed by juniors or acquaintances, participants reported higher degree of hierarchy relational stress. These three studies conceptualized hierarchical relational stress as common in daily relationship. The understanding of cultural psychology should attend to the honorifics for its observation is necessary for a normal flow of communication among Koreans. Implications of the current study are discussed for the understanding of interpersonal conflict and politeness and future directions are suggested.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-28
JournalKorean Journal of Social and Personality Psychology
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 19 Nov 2013


  • Hierarchical interaction
  • Korean culture
  • Politeness
  • Hierarchical relational stress
  • cultural psychology
  • Honorifics

Cite this