Understanding the Status Quo


The impact of the globalisation of culture varies in Korea both by location and demographic group. In saying this, the following cultural values and norms are fundamental to Korean culture.

Accord in personal relationships is a over-riding force in a Korean’s life. Facts, logic and conclusions are habitually not nearly as significant as how one is looked upon by others. Friendships are tight-knit and precious. It is an insult to repudiate a friend’s request. It is even less justifiable to fail a superior. Everyone does his or her best to safeguard and cultivate agreement and good feelings. The possessor of bad news may smile to lessen the blow. They may evade giving the news, even if they are purely the messenger and in no way accountable for it.

It is very hard for Koreans to admit failure and it is distressing to lose face in Korean culture. The straightforwardness of Westerners is thoroughly indigestible to many Koreans (especially older and/or more traditional people), whose self-esteem is often on the line. In Korea, it is of incomparable significance to maintain kibun or the mood or feeling of being in a contented state of mind.

The word kibun has no literal translation in English. On the other hand, as a notion that permeates every aspect of Korean life, it can be described in terms of pride, face, mood, or state of mind. In order to preserve a Korean’s sense of Kibun, particularly in a business context, one must show the appropriate respect and eschew causing loss of face.

As a teacher, my students generally treat me with great courtesy, bowing to me when leaving or entering the class or even when meeting me on the street downtown. Nevertheless, these same students may answer their mobile in my class, arrive late and unprepared or even with clearly plagiarised work, which are all signs of disrespect. to many non-Korean teachers.

Nunchi refers to a perception in Korean culture that involves listening and gauging the other person’s frame of mind, often without the help of lucid (to foreign nationals) signals. It is of vital significance to the dynamics of interpersonal relationships. The literal translation of nunchi is “eye-measure”. With nunchi, Koreans are using non-verbal cues to express feeling and connotation through various means, including voice pitch and volume as well as intonation. Nunchi also relies profoundly on a consideration of one’s status relative to the person with whom one is interacting. Korea, as with other high-context cultures caters toward in-groups that have comparable experiences and outlook and from which inferences are drawn; many things are left unsaid here. In effect, the culture does the explaining.

Both Kibun and Nunchi are very tricky concepts for non-Koreans to assimilate and we are commonly forgiven for our ignorance of these concepts and subsequent discourteous behaviour, particularly if we are high on the status hierarchy. Nonetheless, one gains more than one loses by trying to understand and, as much as possible, behaving according to these rules of behaviour. Clearly this has been my downfall thus far as my “black and white ” approach sometimes misfires!

Drawing from Confucian beliefs, the term inhwa signifies the Korean approach to harmony. As a collectivist culture, consensus is a central factor in promoting and maintaining harmony in Korea. To avoid disturbing inhwa, Koreans will frequently respond with a affirmative answer and demonstrate unwillingness to give direct refusals. “Should we introduce a new topic teacher”? “Yes” or “maybe we press ahead with the speaking assessments”? “Yes”.  In Korean business culture, this manifests itself in an inherent sense of allegiance, employee compliance and polite and formal behaviour.

Confucianism continues to permeate the consciousness of many Koreans, determining Korean ethics, its laws, and general way of life, including business culture. The Korean values of responsibility towards others, respect for family, elders and authority, loyalty, honour, and filial piety are all part of its Confucian tradition. Confucian ideas and ideals such as chung/loyalty; hyo/ofilial piety; in/benevolence, and sin/trust are still part of the cultural fabric and strong elements of Confucianist thought and still exist in day-to-day administrative and organisational hierarchies.

One of the emergent ways of developing shared trust and cementing a personnel relationship is the practice of getting closer through alcohol (not too close of course). However, there is mounting appreciation in Korean society that getting drunk for business reasons may not really be good for business and younger, health conscious workers are opting for alternative ways of bonding. A traditional practice of ‘gift-giving’ is also being addressed in many sectors as anti-corruptions practices and policies are increasingly being implemented.

Over and above, culturally specific concepts such as kibun and nunchi, following are a few other non-verbal indicators you may want to keep in mind:

When a Korean smiles – Smiling can be an expression of happiness, but it can also express shame or embarrassment. If your assistant has made a serious mistake, s/he may smile or even laugh. Don’t get upset by this reaction. It’s not because s/he find the situation amusing, on the contrary. Let the context help you interpret the smile and/or laugh.

Koreans often speak very loudly – This frequently occurs when talking on the telephone. Should you be having a business conversation over the phone with someone who sounds as though s/he is shouting, don’t take it to be an expression of anger or frustration on the caller’s part.  Telephone conversations sometimes end – In what might appear to a Westerner as an abrupt manner, Koreans (those not used to communicating with ‘foreigners’) often hang up when they have finished saying what they wanted to say. The practice of saying “goodbye” does not always apply in Korea.

In conclusion its not enough to be dedicated, organised, funny, caring and committed.  Actually the traits that make up a good teacher in the West can be swallowed up and forgotten in the chaotic environment that I’m experiencing in Chungju.  I realise now my environment is unlikely to change I have to adapt and embrace the three virtues listed above Kibun, Nunchi and Inhwa rule OK!

2 thoughts on “Understanding the Status Quo

  1. I love this article, Gary! It’s very informative. I watched many Korean TV series and I got confused sometimes. Now I am beginning to understand their some of their actions and expressions. (Is this what some people call as “Ah, that’s why…” moment?) 😀

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