Saturday, April 17, 2010

Wanna Chat with Korean Buddies? How not to make an Ass of Yourself: Part 3

This post is part of a series providing tips for expats in Korea who are interested in becoming friends with Koreans, and tips for Koreans who are interested in becoming friends with Westerners. Read. Yes, I know these are sweeping generalizations. Deal with it.

Well whaddaya know, after all that ranting and raving about the expat's side, I'm having to take more care in presenting the Korean viewpoint. However, in all fairness, this is equally, or maybe MORE important to include on an English language blog, so here's part three: how not to make an ass of yourself around potential Korean friends.

Next guideline: don't get in such a snit if I ask your age, job, major, blood type, or marriage status. They're just questions, and when in Rome, expect the Romans to bring up topics common to Roman small talk. Durr. There are two reasons people ask these questions: 1. because I'm sizing you up, and 2. because I'm nervous about talking all in English to a foreigner, and I can't think of anything else to say.

1. If I AM sizing you up... it's Korea. It comes with the territory, and if you make this into a big deal, you're making bad choices about which walls to butt your head against, particularly because the head-butting of this wall exacts a steep social cost. If you really think you're a manners missionary sent here to teach the Mongol hordes how to hold a China teacup, well, your colonialism is showing.

If the first three minutes of the conversation is the pyre on which you choose to burn your chances to have a real Korean friend, you're dooming yourself to a seriously stunted social life, and being more than a bit of an arrogant foreigner to boot.

2. Maybe I'm asking those questions because all those clever things I was thinking of saying before I met you just vanished in a hazy cloud of "Oh crap I think I just made an English mistake." If I asked because I'm nervous, and you make a big deal out it, you'll make me MORE nervous. Realize that some Koreans may well feel like they're being tested every time they speak to a foreigner... because usually they are. Factor that nervousness into your approach to these kinds of conversations.

Next tip: don't dress like a homeless person. Even if they're off duty, here in Korea, people take care of their appearance. That's just how we roll. It's embarrasing to be seen around a foreigner who looks like he just got back from the island in Castaway.

Another helpful "when in Rome" tip: pay attention to the body language Koreans use when talking to each other, and try to use similar kinds. The size and type of hand gestures, the ways and closeness of entering another person's personal space, are different from one culture to another; trying to mirror what you see around you will help people feel more comfortable with you faster.

Next tip: If you're new here, it's OK to not know much about the country... but don't be proud of how little you know. Don't boast that "I've been here for three years and I still can't read Hayangewl!" and don't be derisive or dismissive when I do try to explain something, or immediately fire back with your country's equivalent of whatever I'm describing, as if that mere description has invalidated everything I said, and again demonstrated your culture's superiority. An inquisitive and respectful attitude is the bare minimum if you want to make friends with Koreans; without it, don't even bother trying.

Start off speaking plainly, and a little slowly when you first meet me, until you've spoken with me enough to gauge how well I can listen to Native English. Instead of starting off speaking quickly, with lots of slang and colloquial language, start simple, and raise your level of speech to match my listening ability. It isn't fun when you talk over my head.

Give a damn about your job. If you're here to teach, be a teacher, and do your best. Don't crap on the reputation of foreign English teachers while you're here. [Roboseyo here: I've written about this topic before... but I swear this one was actually in an e-mail I got from a reader.]

Next tip: Give a little back to the friend who helps you out. Back to that gratitude thing for a second: If I helped you with your banking, or some other communication issue, back it up with a little unbegrudging quid pro quo. Proofread a bit of my writing homework or help out as well as you can with a grammar question I have or something. While it doesn't feel nice to be someone's "I only call you when I need some English tips" friend, it IS nice to return favors.

(P.S. also in this vein: Korea is totally a gift giving culture. "Thank you" gifts, "I'm sorry" gifts "let's work this out" gifts and even, "Hey! It's been another month and we're still co-workers" gifts are all kosher. You don't even necessarily need to carefully think through and come up with deeply thoughtful, personalized gifts - the standbys [paris baguette cakes, boxes of chocolates, cookies or traditional snack sets, leaf teas, wine bottles, or even big boxes of spam or olive oil are acceptable for those kinds of perfunctory gifts] thoughtful's better, but not always necessary when it comes to performing the social rituals of friendship. If you hand-make something for me - knit a cap or a scarf - I'll be really touched, because hand-made, personalized is way above and beyond the normal expectation for gift giving.

Here's part four!

Back to the table of contents.


Unknown said...

An excellent article about being in cultures other than your own can be found here

Granted, it's about traveling, but most of the points are equally applicable to living in a new culture.

Roboseyo said...

Thanks, Michael. That was a fun article.

Charles Montgomery said...


I love the "don't look like a castaway" thing.

I come from the SF Bay Area and I see more douche-facial hair and torn jeans here than I ever did back there..

Odd that you'd come here to do that.. seems intentionally perverse to me..