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Cultural notes on Korea
by Joseph Gatt
2018-12-07 08:52:28
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Cultural notes on South Korea, in no particular order.

-Korea has a rigidly stratified social order. Your age, the ranking of the university you went to, the ranking of the company you work for, your financial assets and your family background will determine whether you are highly respected or not. The social order is so rigidly stratified that Koreans believe all societies have such rigid stratifications. If you are over 50, a Harvard graduate, work for Apple, GM or Exxon, have a net worth of a few million dollars, and your father was a congressman, you will be highly respected. If you are from an African country, a middle school dropout, young, with no assets and from a modest family, you will not be respected and making friends will be very difficult.

-Unfortunately intellect or ability to progress do not fit into this rigid stratification. Don't try to gain respect by being smart or having a good personality.

-The United States, China and Japan are the only countries whose social stratification system Koreans are aware of. Don't try to impress them if you are from the German elite, French elite, Russian elite or African elite. They won't try to fit that into their stratification system.

seoul0001_400-Bearing this in mind, Koreans will rarely admire you if you don't fit into the top ranks of the stratified system.

-Koreans take table manners very seriously. Don't sit until you are told where you sit, as seating is not done randomly, but follows a certain hierarchy. You may refuse to sit next to the most senior person, although you may be honored by such an offer. But do refuse the honor, because as you sit next to the most senior person you will be on the radar at all times. Don't pick up utensils or start eating until the most senior person does, and don't pour drinks unless you are told to. Eat rice with a spoon, not chopsticks, and only eat food that is within reach. Keep your head down unless you are specifically asked a question. Pace yourself when you eat, as the most senior person should finish eating first. Put your utensils in the bowl to indicate that you have finished eating. And don't eat from the same plate at once, mix a little bit of every plate as you are eating. In Korea there are main dishes and side dishes. Take a bite from the main dish, then a bite from the side dish. You may be criticized for the way you handle chopsticks or hold a spoon.

-Koreans will not hesitate to criticize you if you are not from the social elite. However, you are not allowed to criticize them, and you are even expected to praise them. This is because you are not part of their inner circle. It takes years to become a full fledged member of their inner circle. Being part of the inner circle will make you immune to criticism.

-Conversation will tend to revolve around food and Korean popular culture. As you gradually get to know them, the conversation will shift to office politics. Korean companies tend to work like political organizations where each cabinet member is criticized or praised, and eventually promoted or removed.

-Whatever you do, do not engage in conspicuous behavior at meetings or at the company. You are expected to be invisible and to only be present when called upon. Being conspicuous will lead you to be excluded from the group. Don't say or do things that attract attention.

-Koreans that are from the social elite have all the pomp that goes with it. They will remind you every five minutes that they are from the social elite. Those not from the social elite are convinced that they are inferior, and no amount of praise or raising their ego can convince them that they are good people.

-Koreans take people for granted. They may constantly ask you for favors and offer very little in return. Accepting favors will not gain you their friendship, nor will it gain you privileged access to their company or social circle.

-If you are a non-Korean, speaking Korean will not grant privileged access to Korean society. All of the above will still apply, and you will not be considered an intellectual or a genius.

-Don't insist on being respected or try to explain that in your country people should be proud of who they are regardless of how much money they have or their place in society.

-Finally, Koreans believe in authoritarianism. A boss is not expected to be kind, nor are teachers or professors expected to be kind. Authority figures are expected to be scary, and to be met with fear and trembling. If you don't fear them, they will make you fear them, even if that involves death threats.

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