[Buzzvil Culture] Eliminating “Nim” in Korean Workplace Culture

Respect is important in Korea, so much so that it’s built into the language. Along with a variety of verb suffixes for each speech level, an involved system of honorific titles is usually used. Nearly every family member in a tree has their own unique title, based on the age and gender of the speaker. For example, hyeong (형) and nuna (누나) from younger brothers, and oppa (오빠) and eonni (언니) from younger sisters, meaning “older brother” and “older sister”, respectively. Strangers, service workers, and even friends are also often referred to by these titles. (A similar concept exists in English with “aunt” and “uncle”.) The workplace is no different. Positions at normal Korean corporations are structured and hierarchical, and management is top-down and guided. This is reflected in the language, with each level having its own title. (The Sawon provides an excellent overview of the complex variety of possibilities.) Co-workers are always referred to by their appropriate title plus the polite nim (님) suffix, and in some cases, their name. Even generic titles exist for ambiguous situations, such as seonbaenim (선배님), meaning “senior”. Buzzvil, however, is not a normal Korean corporation. We have a nearly flat structure made up of flexible sets of teams, loosely managed by our two CEOs. For the most part, we simply refer to each other using our names plus nim. The exceptions are, again, our two CEOs, who we refer to as daepyonim (대표님), meaning “representative”. However, it’s little more than a formality. While far better than the norm, we didn’t think that was enough. Looking to experiment, at our recent internal hackathon, we exclusively used self-chosen English nicknames. Avoiding the usual structure and formalities, we hoped to create a friendlier atmosphere. In reality it was a bit awkward to get used to, even with nametags. However, after a majority of our team voted to keep using them, we’ve now made English nicknames an official part of our culture! Free-flowing communication is an important part of modern society and startups especially, and, frankly, formalities like nim just get in the way. By using nicknames at Buzzvil, we’re taking our already flat structure to the next level by eliminating nim altogether. We get excited when we hear of other companies adopting similar practices, such as Starbucks Korea using English nicknames. Ultimately, we hope to inspire this kind of open environment and casual work culture in more Korean workplaces, both startups and corporations alike. We believe that by making an impact on a local scale in Korean startup culture, we’ll be better prepared for the global startup scene! We’re curious how other startups around the world encourage open communication in the workplace! Leave us a comment below or tweet @Buzzvil to share with us.

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