Cultural Differences and Respect in Korea

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It was just my second week of working in a hagwon when my headmaster said we needed to talk.

We moved into a small classroom, large Lego bricks scattered on the floor. The only place to sit was in tiny chairs for toddlers. Our knees were pressed up into our chests as we looked across at each other. I would have laughed if the headteacher didn’t look so serious. She stared at me intently, her lip quivering. She took a deep breath.

“I’ve actually been very upset with you this week. Very angry.” Immediately I was taken aback.  My mind raced, my stomach tightened. What had I done?

My headteacher’s eyes twitched about, she sighed. “I think you have been very disrespectful to me and I don’t like it.” I nodded, my eyes felt heavy, as they often do when I’m upset.

Like most people, I go through my life being as respectful as I can to others. The thought that I was disrespectful hit me like a blow. I didn’t know what I had done, but I’d done something. This time I took a deep breath.

“I’m really sorry for being disrespectful. I didn’t even know I was doing anything. What have I been doing? Could you explain to me?”

My headmaster paused to find her words. “First.” Pause. “If you ask me for help.” Pause. “You need to be more.” Pause. “Polite.”

She looked slightly satisfied with this answer. But I of course was not satisfied due to the vagueness. I clearly thought I was being polite already, but she thought otherwise. So I needed true guidance as to how I should be polite. I pushed the matter and after much uncomfortable discussion it basically boiled down to a few things.

First, whenever I asked my headteacher for help, I wouldn’t go over to her. I would make her come to me. To understand, imagine you’re working on a computer and at the other side of the room your boss is working at her desk. Needing help at the computer, would you go over to her, or would you call her over? I was calling her over to me.

Next, whenever I was asking for help. I wasn’t doing it nicely. I was informed that to ask for help, I should be nicer. Say, “Excuse me could I have a moment of your time?” rather than jumping right into the problem.

These were just two examples of things I was doing wrong and I’m sure there were even more. To some these things may seem petty – nothing to get upset about – but in Korean culture such moments can be taken differently.

Korean society is a one of deep respect. Respect for your elders and seniors is something that has lingered on from the Confucian past of the country when pretty much every rule in society was: respect your elders. The idea of an elder in Korea is anybody older than you, even by a matter of a year. If they are even a little bit older, they are to be respected.

In Western society our concept of respect is a little different. We fully understand that our parents and elders are to be respected when we are children, but as we become adults we all pretty much agree that everybody in life is equal. A 21 year old and a 60 year old are more or less on the same level and there is no restrictions on the relationship they can have with each other.

Likewise in work, there may be a hierarchy but the social rules around this hierarchy are minimal. In the past when I’ve worked in offices the relationships between me and my bosses have been relaxed. Most people can become friends with their boss and communication is often informal. It wouldn’t be out of place to say “Y’alright, how’s it going?” to your manager.

On the other hand, in Korea they have different levels of language depending on who you’re speaking to. If they’re younger you use one type of language, if they’re older you use another. Your peers in Korea are those people who are the exact same age as you. To mix with people that are higher or lower in age would often be seen as crazy or unthinkable.

In being disrespectful to my headmistress, I had unwittingly broken every rule of Korean respect that I could. I was younger than her (if only by a few years), had failed to use polite language to address her and I had acted as though she was my peer, rather than regarding her as an elder.

With much apologising, I left the meeting and immediately started to wonder how exactly I would survive a year in Korea. This was my second week and already I was being reprimanded as a disrespectful runt. I’m almost positive that I’m not the only person to have had this trouble when starting a job in Korea.

Researching into hagwons, I’ve read dozens of horror stories: about terrible bosses, arguments and fights, sometimes physical. Countless amounts of teachers have found themselves fleeing from the country with nothing but bad memories. I’m of the belief in a lot of these cases that the hagwon owners weren’t monsters, but rather it was a case of cultural differences and misunderstandings.

It can be hard to wrap our heads around social systems in a new country – especially ones that differs so far from our own. The unfortunate thing about the Korean social system (for foreigners) is that it is set up in a way that when there are problems any attempt to escape them can lead to a snowball effect of more problems.

I’ve read many stories of people getting into confrontations with their hagwon owner and often these altercations are put down to them being another “crazy hagwon owner”. I’ve read so many of these stories that before arriving in Korea, I was almost convinced I would fall prey to one of these irrational characters.

Really, I think these hagwon owners are possibly driven to become crazed by the clash of cultures with their new Western employees who can’t grasp the social systems of Korea. A common story seems to be that a teacher has a problem with their job, so they complain to their owner, this complaint leads to a spiral of arguments and confrontations.

In Korea, complaining to your boss is a complete faux pas. As I’ve said, the idea of respect is so deeply ingrained that this would come as a major shock to the owner. Especially if they haven’t dealt with foreigners before.To say there is a problem is almost the same as saying your boss has failed or done something wrong.

A Korean boss would probably start to think two things upon hearing any complaints. First, I’ve employed a disrespectful fuck who thinks they know better than I do. Second, I can’t allow this foreigner to undermine me or make me lose face in front of my Korean peers, so I have to reassert my authority.

These reassertions of authority just end up in more confrontations because in the West we aren’t taught to be servile. We are instead taught to fight against injustices. Even if these injustices are small, you must fight against them or you yourself will lose face. In essence, in Korea – if somebody below you in the social order challenges you, you lose face. In the West, if you lay down and allow other people to tell you what to do, you lose face. Add the two together and if nobody is willing to swallow their pride there’s going to be major friction.

Obviously there are clear problems with these systems of authority and respect. Since challenging your elders in Korea is simply not done, it means that unscrupulous employers can easily take advantage of their employees. There is no outward mutiny against these employers, so nothing changes, they get away with it. If a Korean person does have a major problem at work they would probably just look for another job.

That’s not to say the West doesn’t also have problems as it can often be hard for employers to make any major changes due to employee strength. It’s harder for a employer to change things in their company drastically, especially if it has a negative effect on the workers.

Personally, I decided soon enough that the only way to survive in Korea without conflict was to do absolutely everything I was told, whenever I was told. Never to argue with anything no matter how stupid.

This for me was probably the hardest challenge in Korea. To give up all power and to often go against my own feelings and thoughts. To never argue about anything or complain. I love to complain! I lost a little bit of pride knowing I couldn’t fight against bad decisions or be independent in my thoughts.

I did find a way to solve my problems eventually. Rather than tackling things head on I tried to think them through and find a way to solve them without anybody losing face. If I had a problem, I always ensured I didn’t place blame for it.

After the dust settled on the first few weeks, my headteacher became one of my greatest allies. Another Confucian idea is that you should look after those younger than you. Whenever I did have trouble, my headteacher would always be there to help, either directly or by helping me in communicating with the hagwon’s director. She looked after me and my interests.

As long as nobody lost face and everybody understood who was in charge everything went smoothly. If there was bumps in the road I didn’t complain.

I would just smile, nod and do as I was told. That’s the Korean way.

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Photo by David Spencer

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4 thoughts on “Cultural Differences and Respect in Korea”

    1. I’m actually no longer in Korea but I’ve still got thoughts from my time there to share. I spent one year teaching English in a hagwon. I’m now in New Zealand.

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