Culture Clash – 10 Tips for Surviving the Korean Workplace

Photo by KOREA.NET

Functioning in another culture involves coming to terms with differences in how things are said and done. Of course, knowing the language will go a long way towards getting what you want. However, the bumpy road to becoming fluent in a national psyche is less straightforward. The following are some tips based on my own and other expatriates’ experiences in the Korean workplace. Suffice to say, I am generalizing and offering one perspective. This does not in any way detract from the kindness, sweetness and generosity shown by Koreans (again, I’m generalizing).

  1. Koreans never say “no” directly. Instead, they may say, “I’ll think about it,” which actually means no. Which brings me to my next point…
  2. Play the game: Because Koreans never say no directly, a lot of white lying ensues (and sometimes those lies are florescent yellow). You will slowly gain a pretty reliable sixth sense for when you’re being lied to. It’s up to you how much you want to play the game.
  3. Keep talking: When you make a request or need something fixed, amended etc., you will likely be met with an “impossible,” or an “I’ll do it tomorrow.” This translates as “This problem/issue may or may not be solved but I cannot be bothered helping you and taking this further.” This is your cue to keep talking. Calmly. Dance your way around the issue. Keep the conversation going. Keep negotiating. When the person realizes you won’t be easily deterred, then magically, they can be bothered.
  4. Push back: Often, your boss, superior or any colleague older than you feel it is their

    Photo by Hackworth

    right to steam-roll you and make unreasonable demands on your time and energy. Harking back to my second point, it is difficult to be assertive in a culture that values indirectness and shies away from conflict. However, if you don’t stand your ground, you will become a doormat. A delicate blend of politeness, directness and firmness will go a long way. Ultimately, you will be more respected and treated better when they realize that you have boundaries and limits.

  5. Do me a favor: Relationship-building is very important. How this happens is through a process of give and take. Except that you are doing most of the giving. You may need to remind your colleague/boss/ older acquaintance that favors are reciprocal and are a two way street. Therefore, set limits on how much you will do for someone and think about how much you have to gain from going above and beyond. You may be rewarded financially or in another way, or you could just become exploited.
  6. What? Now? Your time is not respected. Koreans often leave things to the last minute and don’t plan ahead. You will be told you have to go to a work dinner an hour before it starts and will be expected to drop everything to attend. Your new contract will be signed the day before you’re supposed to start your job. It’s incredibly infuriating. Because it’s so endemic, it’s hard to fight against. The best you can do is make it known (politely) that you’d appreciate more warning next time and to calmly get on with things.
  7. The ambiguous ‘appointment’: While most westerners use this word for having an official appointment at the doctor, dentist, hairdresser etc, in Korea it is used for any kind of meeting. It is handy because you don’t need to go into specifics – just a simple ‘I’m sorry, I have an appointment,” will do, regardless of whether it is to get a hair cut or meet your friend for some much needed soju binge-drinking.
  8. Forgive me: It is better to ask for forgiveness than permission. Using your judgment, assess the pros and cons of a situation. Often, it is much easier to go ahead with something without asking first and then if you get caught, pleading for forgiveness. If you don’t want to be met with an “Impossible!” or a long-winded, thinly-disguised “No!,” then go ahead.
  9. Keeping up appearances: You will be judged on how you dress and what you look like. It can be an unforgiving place for ‘unattractive,’ ‘unfashionable’ people, which is the main reason for the country’s booming plastic surgery industry. Also, in another sense, giving the impression that you are diligent and hardworking also means that you will be perceived this way, even if what you are really doing is playing Space Invaders on your PC. Many expatriates leave Korea as champion desk warmers.

    Photo by morrosv7

  10. Save face: Perhaps the most perplexing of Asian cultural concepts, face is used to preserve one’s honor, status and group harmony. At its most simple, it is a form of co-operation to ensure that individual and group identity can be maintained. Not dissimilar from group-think, this is often achieved through ignoring the facts in favor of a more dishonest yet comfortable reality.

Working in another culture can be rewarding but also challenging. The more prepared and aware you are of how things are done, the less fraught with conflict and frustration your journey will be.


Good Riddance Self-Criticism, Come Hither Self-Compassion

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When you mess up, do you ever speak to yourself in the same harsh, expletive-riddled language your mother used when she caught you trying to stuff the cat in the microwave when you were six?

I do. And it needs to stop. Why? Because the growing body of research in the area of self-compassion is showing that a kinder, more gentle way of relating to yourself is far more beneficial than good-ol’ fashioned beating yourself up.

I repeat: Self-Criticism DOES NOT motivate you nor contribute to your well-being, confidence or overall ability to get shit done. Period.

In fact, research is showing that Self-Criticism is mean, harmful and abusive. Although seemingly seductive and alluring at first, he detracts from our ability to do our best. He sends us on a downward spiral: as we put ourselves down, we lose faith and as a result, stop short of fulfilling our potential.

As researcher and human development expert Kristen Neff writes in her recent book on the topic: “We’re often incredibly callous when relating to our own inadequacies and imperfections, meaning that much of the time we’re slamming the door of our heart right in our own face.”

Why do we do this to ourselves? Because we mistakenly believe that being nice to ourselves will make us lazy and self-indulgent.

Depressing, right?

Enter dashing and elusive Self-Compassion who promises to knock down Self-Criticism in one fell swoop.

In Dr. Neff’s words: “When we trust ourselves to be understanding and compassionate when we fail, we won’t cause ourselves unnecessary stress and anxiety. We can relax knowing that we’ll be accepted regardless of how well or how poorly we do.”

If, like me, you are better acquainted with Self-Criticism and wouldn’t be able to pick Self-Compassion from a police lineup, you need to seek him out, get his number and take him out for a drink.

His core qualities, according to the brains behind the research, are kindness (be kind and caring to yourself), connectedness (recognize that encountering pain and failure is common to humanity), and mindfulness (hold your thoughts and feelings in mindful awareness). Soon enough, you’ll be able to flirt with his sexy brothers too: Confidence, Security, Understanding and Acceptance. With this new-found sense of self, it will be easy to flip the bird to those pesky bad boys that won’t leave you alone, Insecurity, Anxiety and Stress.

So now we know there is a more beneficial way of relating to ourselves in tough times, but

Photo by Thai Jasmine

how exactly do we go about this? Kristen has been very generous with putting specific strategies on her Website. Some of the most practical and least hokey are:

Become aware of your inner critic. Notice the language it uses and the judgments it makes. Question how accurate they are. Talk back to it in the same sympathetic voice you would use with a friend.

Similarly, write daily in a self-compassion journal, processing events through compassionate eyes (e.g. “You idiot! Why did you leave your purse on the subway! becomes “Oh, you were having a bad day and feeling overwhelmed. It’s easy to be forgetful when you’re stressed. Don’t worry, we’ll make some calls and sort it out.”)

Treat yourself (my personal favorite): give yourself permission to meet your own needs (hellooo chocolate, spa, shopping, movies, massage, dancing, Johnny Depp Youtube videos etc., etc…)

Use these strategies to seduce Self-Compassion and his brothers and keep them in your life forever!

Why Quitting is Good

Image by Conor Ogle

Image by Conor Ogle

It’s counter-intuitive to know that quitting on a goal (however big or small) can be a good thing, especially when we are bombarded with messages about the virtues of persistence and perseverance.

I started to question these virtues last year when I repatriated and embarked on graduate studies. Early on, the workload, stress and nature of the programme overwhelmed me and I thought about quitting. Every. Single. Day. However, I felt like it would be some kind of moral failing. Maybe I would never forgive myself and would live with the stigma of being a ‘quitter.’

So, I was surprised (and relieved) to learn that there is a slew of social and economic research behind why quitting can be the best thing you’ll ever do.

According to this research, the biggest reason people don’t throw in the towel when they should is because of our aversion to sunk costs: quitting means thinking about the past and coming to terms with all of the time, money and energy we have invested in something (a project, relationship, job, dream, house etc.), and realizing that we can never get it back.

Those clever Freakonomics dudes, Stephen J. Dubner and Steven Levitt lay out the 411 on this issue in one of their excellent and entertaining podcast episodes, The Upside of Quitting.

They contend that quitting can be a good thing if done fast and strategically. That is, we need to let go of the past and let our sunk costs sink while thinking about the future and opportunity cost.

In Dubner’s words: “It means that for every hour or dollar you spend on one thing, you’re giving up the opportunity to spend that hour or dollar on something else – something that might make your life better. If only you weren’t so worried about the sunk cost. If only you could quit.”

Ahhh, If only knowing if and when to quit was so easy and obvious. While there are those who shy away from sunk costs (guilty!), there are those who give up too early, and weighing the costs and benefits of quitting can oftentimes be too simplistic.

Enter Heidi Grant Halvorson – a social scientist known for liberating screeds of useful and relevant (yes, you read right) academic research on this topic from obscure journals and exposing it to a wider audience – gives us one way to know when to fold ‘em. By adopting a promotion focus – that is, by thinking about our goals in terms of what can be gained (such as happiness and well-being) – we become more comfortable with screwing up and accepting the losses we incur along with way.

Conversely, when we take on a prevention focus – a preoccupation with what we could lose if we don’t succeed, we are much more aware of, and sensitive to, sunk costs.

Mr Dubner concludes with some apt advice: “It’s something that Stella Adler, the great acting coach, used to say: Your choice is your talent. So choosing the right path, the right project, the right job or passion or religion – that’s where the treasure lies; that’s where the value lies. So if you realize that you’ve made a wrong choice – even if already you’ve sunk way too much cost into it – well, I’ve got one word to say to you, my friend. Quit.”

In my own case, I decided to persist which came at a cost – financial, emotional, mental, and physical. I lived through one year of hell because I thought the sense of accomplishment and piece of paper at the end of it would be worth it. If I was to do it over again (shudder), I wonder if, and at what point I would adopt a promotion focus and be courageous enough to call myself a quitter.

The Case for Falling in Love?

Photo by Gabriela Camerotti

Anybody who has ever suffered and endured the pain of a broken heart inevitably feels a sense of a failure, regardless of their role as heart breaker or heart breakee (although it is never quite that black and white).

Trying to find meaning in my latest romantic “failure” and feeling very much overcome by the F word, my good friend led me to Harvard-trained academic Mari Ruti’s anti-self-help self-help book, The Case for Falling in Love.

This woman urges a different perspective on the messy enterprise of love: “As long as we believe that the goal of love is to make us happy, we see romantic ruptures and disappointments as mistakes; we see love’s missteps as deviations from its ‘proper’ course. In contrast, when we admit that love’s mission might be to mold our destiny, we are able to view its misfortunes as an important part of the process.” Ahhhhh.

According to Ms. Ruti, life events, such as heartbreak, can accelerate our development, propelling us from one stage of life to the next and open us up to new possibilities.

Her overarching theme is that suffering, and suffering caused by ‘failed’ love is ultimately beneficial: “Suffering cuts through layers of redundancy. It strikes at the very heart of being, releasing our spirit from its cage. In this sense, moments when things don’t work out well for us are rife with opportunity; they are openings to transformative energies that, in the long run, revitalize our lives.”

She contends that once we are ready to get back on our feet after licking our wounds, our heart and soul rebuilt, albeit haphazardly and askew, we are better people for it – more thoughtful and compassionate.

There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in (Leonard Cohen)

And how do we get back up on our feet? Although we lose the person, we can steal qualities from our lovers – emotional tonalities that help us grow and become part of our psyche. The intertwining of the psychic and social renders us psychologically agile but also vulnerable. Like it or not, our lover gets under our skin and stays there.

Healing occurs as we undertake the journey to reconfigure our identity. Although the relationship is broken, we can take on the potentialities that were present in the relationship and nourish them. In Ms. Ruti’s words: “It’s only when we learn to thrive beyond the confines of that relationship that it’s safe for us to finally let go of it.”

Ultimately, she concedes, we must learn to tolerate the gray murkiness of love by being resilient and resourceful. “This is where the battle should be waged: Not between you and your lover, but within your own being.”

Easier said than done, right? Transforming meaningless suffering into emotional and psychological growth is an arduous path. In the early stages of grieving and mourning, it doesn’t help to think your way out of heartache. You can rationalize ‘til the cows come home, but it won’t make things any clearer or easier. After all, the heart wants what it wants. But, as we have seen, in time, we must ultimately learn, grow and march forth with scars where the wounds used to be to meet our destiny.