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).
- 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…
- 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.
- 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.
- Push back: Often, your boss, superior or any colleague older than you feel it is their
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.