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.