Understanding the nuances and importance of titles in Soo Bahk Do Moo Duk Kwan
Learning a martial art introduces us to an array of new cultural norms and expectations, many of which can be confusing and sometimes uncomfortable for those of us from Western societies. It’s not enough that we wear clothes we are not used to, are given commands in a language we do not understand or are asked to move our bodies in a way that initially seems impossible, but we are also expected to address the people around us with specific titles that are dependent on their rank, qualifications, age and their role in the dojang. To compound things further, the titles we use are also governed by who we are and how old we are. It’s easy to see why new members in the dojang may be reluctant to strike up a conversation when they’re not sure how to address other people or generally remain quiet for fear of saying the wrong thing.
While it can take some time for new students to gain a good understanding of the different titles, the following will hopefully offer some clarity. At all times, and of great importance, is that we show proper courtesy, discipline and respect to the people we train with. It’s perfectly understandable to make mistakes, however it is also important that we take note of the people around us, watch how they interact with each other and ask questions if we are unsure. Addressing someone as Sir or Ma’am is a good fall-back option if you are unsure of their rank or certification.
The importance of Confucius
Confucian values have influenced Korea in many ways, including the development of the language. Korean is considered a hierarchical language, with the style or how we speak determined by who we are speaking to; the formal, the informal, and the neutral. Conversations within the dojang mostly follow the formal style, which includes the use of correct titles. For a deeper appreciation and understanding of Confucius’ influence on the use of title and names, philosophy lecturer Geoffrey Thomas provides some additional information on our topic here.
Follow the seniors
In nearly all cases, the main instructor in the dojang will be a Sa Bom, Kyo Bom, Kyo Sa, or Jo Kyo. This person is our first and primary point of contact; they are there to guide us through all aspects of our training, including providing us with an understanding of the necessary etiquette and protocols. The instructor should explain their title and the proper way to address them, however if they do not, then it’s important that we watch how other students address them, and follow accordingly.
Instructing isn’t for everyone
While all students progress through the ranks, not everyone will seek certification as an instructor. Certified Instructors can be identified by their ‘rocker’; a small badge that sits underneath their Federation patch (shown to the side). Only those who have completed the required assessments and have obtained the necessary qualifications will display these badges. Keep an eye out for who is, and who is not wearing a rocker as this will greatly assist you in determining their title.
Before or after the name?
You may hear the title added before or after someone’s surname, such as Smith Kyo Sa, or Kyo Sa Smith. In keeping with tradition, and based on Korean language convention, the title generally comes after the surname, however the reverse is not considered disrespectful. What is important is that the title is used, therefore the natural flow of the title coming before or after the name should not detract from its use.
When and when not to use titles
Once we have developed an understanding of the different titles and who they apply to, it is important that we use them at all times. This helps to set a good example for other students who may still be unsure of how titles should be used, and goes toward establishing the proper type of relationship we have without instructors and seniors. The correct use of titles and similar protocols within the dojang are also a means of creating the right frame of mind for our training environment; we are learning a martial art steeped in history, tradition and philosophy, therefore it is incumbent on us to uphold these expectations to ensure the Art prospers and thrives through us and onto the next generation.
Cultural norms in Western societies can make it feel uncomfortable at first for some adults to call another person Sir or Ma’am, or to include the Korean terms for their titles. It is important that we understand why titles should be used in order to avoid misunderstandings. The use of titles is a way of acknowledging the role our instructors play in our training, and their years of dedication and effort in attaining that certification. In general, a Jo Kyo has at least three years experience, a Kyo Sa has at least six years experience and a Sa Bom has at least 13 years experience.
Using terms such as Master, Sir or Ma’am in public settings may not always be appropriate. While it may have become normal to address our seniors this way in correspondence or within the dojang, in a public setting this may raise eyebrows and draw unwarranted attention. Using titles such as Sa Bom Nim in these circumstances might be appropriate, however we should take the lead from our seniors as to the best way to proceed.
The relationship between a student and instructor within the martial arts environment is unlike most other similar relationships. The relationship between children (as the student) and adults (as the instructor or senior member) should develop along formal lines, with children encouraged to address all adults and other children they train with appropriately. The relationship between adults in the student/instructor relationship should develop with a mutual understanding between the two people; an instructor’s title should be respected, while the student must also be shown their own due respect.
There may be occasions where a friendship develops between students, or between students and their instructor, which sees them socialise outside the dojang. In these situations the senior person in the relationship should set the tone for communications, however when in doubt it is best to maintain formalities until the senior person advises otherwise.
But who is a Master?
The term Master refers to those members who have entered the Ko Dan Ja ranks of Sa Dan (4th Dan) or higher and wear a midnight blue belt with a red stripe through the middle. While it may be instinctive to call someone Master because it is a word we are more familiar with, if the person is a Certified Instructor then the term Master does not accurately convey their standing within the Moo Do community. While all Ko Dan Ja are Masters, not all Masters are Sa Bom. If someone has attained the Sa Bom certification, then we should always ensure we address them accordingly.
Who gets the ‘Nim’?
It is important to understand that a Certified Instructor is awarded the title of Jo Kyo, Kyo Sa or Sa Bom. Note that the word Nim is not part of those titles, rather it is an honorific added to the title by other people. It is wrong to say “I am a Jo Kyo Nim”. If your title is Jo Kyo, then it is up to others to add the word Nim when addressing you if it is warranted. The following are situations when we should add the term Nim to the end of a title:
There are almost certain to be occasions where adult students are given instruction by teen or even youth students. Regardless of age discrepancy, students (the adults) should still add the honorific Nim, and use the terms Sir or Ma’am when addressing young people who are their seniors by rank. Likewise, young people should ensure they add the honorific Nim and use the terms Sir or Ma’am when addressing adults who are their juniors.
There is no Korean equivalent to the term Sir or Ma’am, which is why we incorporate these English terms into our training. The process of responding with a strong “Yes Sir” or “Yes Ma’am” is a way of acknowledging the command we have received. It should not be seen, or used, as a form of kowtowing to a person of authority. Rather, the response shows that we have heard and understand what is expected of us, and are ready to put the command into action. It is possible to replace the “Yes Sir” response with “Yes Sa Bom Nim” or similar. This may be more appropriate in non-English speaking countries, but as always, we should follow the lead of our seniors if unsure.
When addressing Yu Gup Ja (members ranked 10th to 1st Gup), we should still defer to the formal style of conversation, unless the dojang has specifically opted against this. Some dojang may encourage the use of Mr/Mrs/Ms when speaking to the lower ranked members, while others may use first names only. In Korean, first names can be given a formal or informal appellation (“shi” for formal, “ah” or “yah” for informal), however there is no analog in English, therefore it could come across as disrespectful to use a first name if it is not standard practice within the dojang.
The use of correct titles and responding with a strong “Yes Sir/Ma’am” is a demonstration of good Kyum Son (humility). By practicing Kyum Son, we separate ourselves from our ego, which helps us move towards the Cho Shim; the beginner’s mind. This is a mindset that is inquisitive, curious, open and appreciative. As Moo Do In (martial artists), we are eternal students, always willing to learn from those around us. As we progress in our training we must focus on maintaining our Cho Shim to ensure that we continue to learn and grow, as the further we move away from our Cho Shim, the harder it is to continue to develop.
With appreciation to PJ Steyer SBN for his guidance and assistance.
There are two other titles that are often used within the dojang, but which only refer to specific people:
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