Korea is often said to be a country in which regard for the feelings of others is absolutely necessary in order to preserve the nation`s most appreciated value: Confucian-oriented harmony. In fact, Korea is the most harmonious and peace-oriented country in the world. Yes, there have been wars in Korea and there is a strong military presence, but it has always been other countries that have invaded Korea, never the other way round.
Harmony is directly connected with emotions; therefore, emotional factors, rather than objective reasoning play an important role in how Koreans act and react in their daily lives. I often feel that harmony takes precedence over virtually everything else-honesty, truth, accomplishment, and so on.
For Koreans to develop and maintain harmonious relationships, they must be able to accurately "read" the gibun (feelings) of others, adjust their own attitudes and behavior accordingly, and at the same time constrain their own feelings in order for all parties to be unthreatened, relaxed, comfortable, and happy. This can be, for instance, a "Yes, right" from the son to the father, even if the son doesn`t agree to what the father says; it can be a small gift for a superior when returning from a trip.
Gibun can be damaged, and create a negative response, by a wide variety of things that usually involve failing to follow the very precise rules of Korean manners.
Bowing properly to a superior, using proper formal language and respecting official titles, treating a senior and a subordinate accordingly, and giving an appropriate gift, are practices easily understood and adopted by Westerners. On the other hand, there is etiquette that might make no sense to Westerners and which, on the contrary, is considered as disruptive to an efficient life from a Western point of view. These include hiding bad news, hesitating to make critical remarks about someone or something (that might be contrary to the other party`s views), criticizing the competency, veracity, or honesty of an individual, keeping silent about a mistake that has been made, or lying about some matter.
Though this kind of etiquette may promote a peaceful Korean life, this kind of harmony is something that foreigners in Korea struggle with tremendously. Harmony for a Westerner is not just agreeing to the group`s official opinion, behaving according to one`s status/role, or living up to expectations of one`s superior. Harmony for a Westerner means consensus. Open, fact-based discussion is preferred, ideally without the intrusion of personal emotions, that is based on logical, rational thinking. A consensus-based decision is "Working for harmony" for a Westerner. Sometimes, when I discuss various topics with my friends in Korea, I talk openly, express my opinions in a straightforward manner, and expect others not to take things personally. Occasionally, it happens that I upset my Korean counterparts by my honesty and directness. The discussion may end with the Korean leaving upset, and me being left behind, confused, not knowing what I said wrong.
Logic was an untoward concept in Korea until modern times, and taboo. Even today, the typical Korean is turned off by the obvious and aggressive use of logic. Logically thinking people with universal principles as their guidelines are considered cold and calculating, bereft of the personal, human qualities that are so important to the Korean psyche. From the Korean point of view, a logical mind is generally regarded as disruptive rather than constructive. The Korean custom of giving precedence to human factors over facts and logic is usually disturbing to most Westerners when they first encounter this.
To make things even more complicated, in Korea there exists, unlike most Western countries, a strict hierarchical system that determines the way one should act toward another person. I tend to respect people for special achievements, good character, and so forth. Age, sex, authority and seniority play no such role for me. For me, dealing with the Korean hierarchical system is not just something unfamiliar and alien, it is a concept that somewhat affronts me from time to time, while forcing me to deal with situations that are somewhat irrational from my point of view. However, it is still necessary to keep the other person`s feelings in mind, try to make the higher person feel happy, and not hurt his/her feelings in any situation, be it business or personal.
Foreigners, therefore, must deal with inefficiency at work or even in their private life. Losing time or profit by concealing an unpleasant truth, in order to preserve harmony, is something unthinkable for a Westerner. Koreans might express an unpleasant truth in a certain way. Foreigners are not used to this and that`s where we come to another problem: how Koreans see the truth. Many times the truth (from a Western point of view) is not expressed openly. Rather, you need to read between the lines to understand what the other party is trying to say, or if there is no other way possible, regularly confirm the information you receive. This is where many misunderstandings arise between myself and Koreans, because I still don`t know in which situations I should accept a Korean`s word and when I should not.
How can foreigners in Korea adapt their own values, attitudes, and habits to the point that they can deal effectively with the emotional and personal characteristics of Koreans at work as well as at play? I myself have tried very hard to live within Korean culture, from following simple etiquette such as bringing gifts and inviting friends (which I consider a very nice tradition), to really difficult things such as trying to change my attitude, living up to a superior`s expectations, and keeping quiet in discussions, when the opinion of the other party was slightly different to my own.
But one day I realized that this was not "me" any more. Trying to adjust to Korean cultural values is sometimes easier than confrontation, but, in the long run, trying to totally adjust to Korean culture can be bad for a foreigner`s mental health.
Adapting to Korean Society
These days, I am working on acquiring the cultural skill nunchi, or the ability to read a person`s gibun. It literally means "Eye measure" and is especially important in places where people of different ages, backgrounds, and social status, and therefore different gibun requirements, must interact constantly in a cooperative and efficient manner. However, I should never lose my sense of myself. I try to make the best out of difficult situations and if there is some bad news to be transmitted to a superior, I start by doing it in a gentle way, though getting the message across.
In fact, I have read that Koreans mostly prefer foreigners to behave like foreigners, and not to try too much to be like Koreans, since a foreigner can never be a Korean. Koreans are born, not made. Therefore, it is still better for foreigners to behave like foreigners, but to be sensitive to Korean culture, Korean`s feelings, and show respect and appreciation for the people and their culture. Sometimes it is even a good idea to just confess up front, that although you are familiar with the culture and understand certain etiquette, you do not yet have the cultural skills to react to it properly or to use it effectively.
Even though Korean culture and society is changing a lot these days, harmony, mood, and face-saving will remain core cultural values, without which things cannot and will not run smoothly. I believe that those foreigners who are perceptive enough to combine the Korean ways with the Western ways, while applying a combination of logic and sensitivity, are the ones who will succeed in Korea.