Prepare yourselves for a real Korea rant. I’ve now been living in Korea the impossible country for four months (seriously, where did the time go?!), and the more I feel that I’m getting under the skin of the Koreans and their culture, the more I often feel completely frustrated, confused, and quite often disappointed.

I’ve previously shared my rants about Koreans and their brutal Korean honesty and the yes/no confusion on this blog. And that’s all still true. When commenting on something personal related to the other person, Koreans certainly don’t sugarcoat their words. “You look tired”, “You’re eyes are very big!”, “You’re really tall, is that normal for women in Denmark to be that tall?” or said to my husband “You don’t look Korean at all”. The latter is usually an insult, since looking Korean is considered a virtue. Having taken several verbal Korean slaps over the past few months, I’ve also come to notice that it’s pretty much only when commenting on people’s appearance that Koreans really speak their mind. In most other cases they will be vague, ambiguous, or even (at least from a Western standpoint) straight out insincere.

I’ve lost count on how many times Koreans have expressed polite intentions without meaning it. A few examples: When I first arrived at Sogang, so many of my new colleagues would give me their phone number and tell me to call them if I needed anything. “Wow, that seems nice”, I thought. Not that I’d ever call up a random new colleague over trivial daily problems, though. And they know that. They know that I will never call, they know they will never actually have to help me with anything, because I won’t dare to ask. So why do they do this? I would personally never give anyone my number and tell them to call me, if I didn’t mean it. I’m used to a culture where a word is a word, and where trust is broken when words are broken. You say you do something, you do it. You express a certain intention only when you truly mean it. If you don’t want people to expect anything from you, you make no promises to them and they won’t. But Koreans like to create a positive atmosphere by creating positive expectations. To them it doesn’t matter that both parties (or in the beginning for me, just one party) know that it’s just an empty promise.

Empty promises seem to be every Korean’s modus operandi. “Hey Sofie, how are you? Hope you’re not feeling lonely here in Korea. I’d like to take you and your husband out for dinner some day.” When I first heard these words uttered by several of my colleagues, I honestly expected that they would bring out their calendar and actually suggest a date for said dinner. But no, I’m now four months in and not once did any of them actually make any effort to turn their empty promises into reality. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not disappointed by the fact that I’m not having dinner with my boss, I’m disappointed that it should take me this long to figure out that what Westerners perceive as sincere promises, are for Koreans merely good intentions expressed to be polite. Koreans are very present-oriented and happy to build you castles in the sky, so that the relation in the present moment may be improved. It doesn’t matter that it is, in fact, just a castle in the sky with no reality to it at all.

Another thing I’ve come to notice in Koreans is that they are willing to go to great lengths in order to avoid having to say the word “no”. If I for instance ask a colleague, “are you available for lunch today?” and they’re not, they will either say “maybe”, “I’m not sure”, “I don’t know”, “I’ll have to check”, or “it may be rushed but I’ll make it work”. For your reference, these are all polite Korean expressions for “no”. With no exception! This has also taken quite a while for me to process. Again, I’m from a culture, where it’s perfectly fine to say that you can’t make it to lunch. I’ve frequently taken working lunches in front of my computer, and sometimes back home when my colleagues would ask me “hey Sofie, you wanna go for lunch?” and I didn’t have time that day, I would smilingly answer “No, sorry. So busy today. Let’s have lunch together tomorrow instead.” A perfectly honest reply. In this case both I and the other person know that we’re not having lunch together today. We also both know that we certainly are having lunch tomorrow, because I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t mean it. Expectations are aligned, and trust is maintained. So simple.

In the beginning, thinking that Koreans would behave in the same manner, I actually thought that they would check their schedule and get back to me, so I would just wait and not make other plans before I heard back (which obviously I never did). On so many occasions I’ve felt like a complete idiot thinking that they actually meant what they said.

This also goes for people you don’t know. My husband needed to go to the dentist last week. We had called in advance to make an appointment, and they assured me that it was not a problem for him to see an English speaking dentist at the clinic. Promise made. Just in case, I came with him, which would prove to be a wise choice indeed! When we walked into the clinic and my husband told the receptionist in English that he had an appointment at 4pm, she just looked at him dumb-founded and unable to say anything. I then gave her the details in Korean, and we were told to take a seat. When we were then called into the examination room, the dentist did the classic Korean “crossed arms” gesture and shaked her head as she said “no, English”. Promise broken. (Haha, apparently they do use the n-word sometimes. Sorry, I couldn’t help this one.) My husband then looked at me hopelessly, and I started telling the dentist in Korean why we had come. We got the treatment we wanted, and everything went fine, but just once more we felt lied to. They said English was fine. We believed them. It wasn’t. We were disappointed.

As for making other appointments, on the occasions that I’ve actually succeeded in setting up meetings or lunch/dinner appointments in either a private or professional context, I’ve learned a couple of valuable lessons as well. Don’t for one minute believe that the appointment is valid until confirmed that same day. Until 30 minutes before, place, time, setting, and purpose is subject to change. In fact, I’ve yet to make any appointments with anyone in this country that have not been changed last minute in one or all of the above dimensions.

I come from a culture where being punctual is considered the norm. You apologize if you are even just two minutes late, and most people consider tardiness to be downright rude and a waste of the other person’s time. Time in Korea not only seems to go faster, it’s also perceived quite differently. Being late, is not considered particularly rude, and going over time at formal meetings is standard. I often think that Koreans must see me as a “time fascist” since I like to show up on time, expect others to do the same, and prefer to be able to plan a couple of weeks ahead without too many last minute changes”.

I’m gradually learning to deal with this phenomenon, which I can best describe as insincerity, at least from a Western perspective. I know that Koreans never have bad intentions, and that they (in most cases) don’t want to hurt other people. But as a foreigner living in this impossible country, it takes a few serious hits before you get used to this probably most significant and most difficult Korean cultural quirk.

Any of my readers with similar experiences? Please share in the comments. I’d love to hear your stories.

19 Comments »

  1. You wrote your problems about communication problems with Koreans and you already know all your answers. Maybe you’re just lonely? Talk to your husband? Maybe you’re projecting your communication problem with him to Koreans? Now I’m going to run away before you get mad at me. Bye. 😀

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    • I’d never get mad at you 🙂 You may have a point, and your words definitely struck a chord with me. Truthfully, I don’t have that many friends over here, and since Koreans tend to keep to themselves (my own people are no better, believe me) it is sometimes hard to be a foreigner here. This post was in no way intended as being only negative, but I usually write about how much I love Korea. This time I wanted to share my frustrations as a foreigner and explain to others why we may experience such situations.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I read the post twice and really feel for you. As a Korean, I am in total agreement with you on Koreans’ (our) brutal honesty about the appearance. I was never a fan of that policy.

    Koreans (we) are also known for being overly afraid of offending or disappointing others. Having said that I tend to offend people a lot simply by opening my mouth. Perhaps it’s a good thing that I don’t live in Korea any more?

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    • Haha, just go ahead and admit that that was the only reason you moved away from Korea already. Or maybe they even kicked you out of the country for always being offensive? I’m thinking maybe for calling women in their early 30s 아줌마 🙂

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  3. Hello Sofie,

    I really like your input on Korean cultural etiquette and behaviors in regards to politeness & avoiding the truth. Though I am not currently in Korea, I lived there for 3 years and had some relatively similar experiences especially in my first year with trying to make authentic Korean friends: at school, at work, and even on the street. Out of my 3 years I met many Koreans, but the ones who (in my opinion) seemed more concerned about my adaptation and my well being to living in Korea were the ones I solely kept in contact with, which is a sad truth. For the ones who I lost touch with I went out to lunch, sometimes dinner with them, I worked with them, I even helped tutor them in English. But, many times I realized I was doing the far reaching with these (past) friends and (though accepting of joining) never initiated invitations unless it suited them.

    So, I agree with you that getting use to Korean etiquette and cultural exchanges is an adjustment. But, I also hope that you and your husband will stay positive and know (based on other expat experiences) that you can meet Koreans who don’t fit a standard norm, understand other cultures, and want to really & genuinely become good if not close friends with foreigners in Korea.

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    • Thank you so much for sharing your story. I’m definitely staying positive, and I have had many great experiences and encounters here as well. I wrote this post because, while difficult and puzzling, I also find it extremely fascinating. 🙂

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  4. Hi Sofie,

    I’ve lived in Korea too and I can say that, if you didn’t know this before, you’ve hit the right time for culture shock to happen. It happens to every Expat at one time or another, and at least for Expats living in Korea, it usually happens about three to four months after first moving there.

    If you have other Expat friends, now is definitely the time to hang out with them as you can have a long rant and they will get it. It’s also why having some Expat friends is really important. You can talk to your husband about it too if you like as he will probably understand your frustrations. In fact he may even be experiencing similar stuff.

    Of course when some people experience culture shock, they want to stay at in their apartment/house and watch their favourite TV shows or recreate their favourite food from home as best as they can, which is also fine. (I saw on Instagram that you’ve managed to find some Danish food, so you are on the right track already!)

    I worked in Korea for 2 years, and although I loved living there, there were definitely times when I had homesickness or just couldn’t get my head around why some things were the way they were in Korea. My biggest gripe was the expectation of showing respect to elders who abuse their position or don’t deserve it. However I have also experienced similar frustrations to you. I really hated how nothing was scheduled far in advanced (booking plane tickets home to visit family ended up being more expensive because I couldn’t get confirmation of when my exact holiday was until 2-3 months before I was due to have it) and when I spent hours preparing a fun revision lesson for my middle school students before their exam, 5 minutes before the lesson, my co-teacher for that class would sometimes tell me they hadn’t finished their section of the textbook, so could they use my lesson to finish it? I also always found that when they say ‘English speaking staff’ they mean the doctors/dentists etc. rather than reception staff. It’s why I was appalled when a Korean guy I once met tried to discourage me from learning Korean because ‘Koreans speak good English’. Of course some definitely do, but as a whole Korea is not a bilingual nation. I gave him the stink eye and asked him if the elderly people who worked in the local market were going to understand me when I tried to buy fruit and veg from them using English. He shut up after that.

    Some of these cultural differences will never stop being frustrating but in time you will find ways to cope with them; which it sounds like you already learning to do 🙂

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    • Thank you so much for sharing your experiences with me. It really feels good to know that I’m not alone with my frustrations. I may be suffering from a slightly delayed culture shock. The honey moon period is over, everyday life has begun, Korea in many ways feels like my home, but at the same time it’s so different from what I’m used to calling home. I definitely still love living here, but there are just some things that are harder to cope with as a foreigner. And I completely agree with you. I’ve never experienced a situation where I could speak English to any elderly people over here. And they usually run local markets, fruit markets, and the really good local restaurants. A certain level of Korean is definitely necessary if you want to really thrive in this country. 🙂

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  5. haha I can totally relate to the brutal honesty part. My favorite was when I went to Holika Holika a while back and the store clerk was like “…you need to wear a lot of makeup” 8D…;;;; One person told me that “You look so tired today” was meant to show that they are taking an interest in you (whereas if they don’t say that, it means they couldn’t care less about your condition) but I’m not sure how valid that statement was or if they were just trying to cover up for themselves ^^;

    On the other hand, Japanese people have the same problem in saying no, so I’m no stranger to that. “Sore wa chotto……” was my favorite expression in Japanese lol

    By the way, out here in LA I have a few Korean American friends, and when we hang out we usually clarify if our meeting time is “Korean Time” (it always is), in which case we schedule our date for like 30 minutes earlier because we know that they’ll all be late 😉

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    • Haha! Thank you so much for sharing. I love “Korean time”. I’ll definitely use that next time I’m hanging out with Korean friends. Interesting that they think saying people look tired is a sign of caring for them. Didn’t even think of that! 🙂

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  6. Hey Sofie~ Sorry to hear that the road is bumpy these days. Honestly I had all of those same experiences you mention here and was super frustrated with them. I always hesitate to tell people who are learning Korean about these things because I don’t want to disappoint them but looking back now these cultural differences are what helped shape who I am now. The were perhaps the most valuable parts of my experience in Korea. I see culture now like a blanket that we get when we are born. It is laid upon us from day one and we get so used to it throughout our lives that when we live someplace where their cultural blanket is different, then and only then do we notice the differences. Although there is much about the Korean blanket that I don’t like, it was necessary to experience those things in order to see my own culture for what it is. And more importantly to take the blanket off completely and see things clearly.

    As for specifics, the reason for the shallow comments is that the surface is the only topic that is a part of the “public space” – meaning that it is free to comment on. However when I meet someone here in the US I might say “I like your outfit” or “Nice hat” – well I tried that in Korean and every time I said it someone responded with “Do you want me to give it to you?” I later learned that complimenting an article of clothing was as good as asking for it. What I now have come to like about this thing Koreans do is that everyone can’t really hide anything. If you’re sick, you’re sick… so what. They notice it and are likely to give you tea or try to take care of you in some way they can. Like seriously, I can’t lie in Korean unless I have totally prepared myself beforehand. “Okay.. if they ask me that I’m gonna say this…” Without doing that beforehand the truth just slides out or I fumble my words so much they notice something is up. I’ve noticed it’s the same among Koreans as well. So this is what makes them so pure of heart. In general I find they are much more innocent and pure of heart than the average person I meet here.

    This is just one of the things that I disliked at first and have come to find endearing. I hope the same for you and I trust that you’re already on your way there. My dad used to tell me before I went on a trip somewhere something that might be fitting here. “The ‘worst’ experiences on your trip will make the best lessons.”

    소희 씨 응원하는 제레미 드림 ^^

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    • Hey Jeremy. Thank you so much for your comment. It means a lot to me. Life in Korea is still pretty amazing, but just once in a while I feel like I’m hitting a wall, and this blog is a great way to share these experiences with people. I haven’t had the “should I give it to you” experience yet, but I’ll be careful complimenting people on outfits and accessories from now on ^^ I love your final quote. Your dad seems like a wise man. Thank you for the support!!

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  7. As a Korean I didn’t realize that those empty words might hurt someone who’s not familiar with it. Thanks for writing this. Actually it’s a problem for native Koreans too.

    At first, when I started socializing in college, I sometimes got stressed out so much because everybody gives those empty words… like “let’s grab a lunch together” though it’s just an another word to say ‘glad to meet you.’ But as a freshmen it felt like an obligation that must be kept.. so if I had encountered, like 5-10 friends on the street a day, my calendar would become so full for two weeks, to keep that promise…

    It wouldn’t gave me any time to take a rest, so I got stressed out so much. But after several years of college life I’ve felt that almost everyone was also tired of it, and we knew it all. We still gave those empty words for greetings but now we didn’t actually try to meet with everybody..

    I think… this should be changed a bit. At least we shouldn’t give empty words for dinner/lunch to each other, but we should rather just express how glad we are to meet. This is also a problem for native Koreans! so don’t be too disappointed 🙂

    But still, if you have someone whom you would like to have dinner together, I would suggest that you just ask for a specific date & time immediately. Though many of those words are empty, they are also sincere partly. So if you ask for a date & time, they would be also happy to spend time with you. I know it’s kinda tricky. It isn’t that clear right? haha.. This is what a high-context society is.

    +) When someone gave you a phone number and said ask them anything about Korea, they really meant it, I guess. I also do that to my friends from other countries. I had exchange students from Iceland and Netherlands, and they asked me a lot: from where to buy fresh foods, where to get their boyfriends’ photos to be printed in a big size… etc. I was happy to help them settle!

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