Why We Have So Much Trouble Communicating with Koreans
In Korean, much unspoken information is derived from context. When a Korean says “Where are you going?” to another Korean, the literal translation is “Where going?” and the subject is assumed to be “you” from the context: there is only one person speaking to another, so whom else could it be? If there were three people together, and one person abruptly walked away, the same question “Where going?” would mean “Where is he going?” and everyone would understand it to mean that, from the context: there is only one person whose destination is in question, therefore he must be the subject of the question.
This is a simple example of what Hall (1976) calls a “high context” language. In a high context language, the actual words may not contain the entire message, yet the expectation is that the entire message has been understood. Because of this, Koreans won’t commonly correct you nor explain things to you, because you are assumed to know what everyone else knows. Park (1997) notes:
Since Koreans think that they are close to each other in terms of what they have experienced or can share, they are reluctant to jot down what does or does not have to be done. On the other hand, the English discourse using a low context culture tends to be expressive because less information is assumed to be shared across ethnocultural boundaries. Thus, speakers of English at large need to provide detailed information as a common underlying bond for communication to be effective” (p. 24).
A problem between a Korean school and one of their English instructors is an excellent illustration of this difference. When I was employed at a private English academy (hagwon) the branch manager hired a new native English instructor from the United States. He sent his paperwork over and the manager sent it to immigration. Eventually immigration sent his visa issuance number, and our manager informed him of it through email. However, the manager neglected to tell him that he now had to take that number back to the Korean consulate where they will issue his visa. He flew to Korea and started work. When the hagwon took him to immigration to get his Certificate of Alien Registration, he was asked for his visa, and he pulled out the visa issuance number he was given. Upon inspection of his passport, it was learned that he entered Korea on a three month tourist visa!
Hagwon management blamed him for the mistake; he should have known that one must get their visa issued before coming to Korea. His defense was “How was I supposed to know if you didn’t tell me?” The American, low-context language expectation was that the person or entity who had all the knowledge would impart all of it to the person whose knowledge was incomplete. After all, the hagwon had hired other foreign teachers and understood the process. From a Western perspective, it was clearly the hagwon’s responsibility to make sure a new teacher had all the necessary information to process their visa.
When the American said “How was I supposed to know if you didn’t tell me?” the response from management was “How are we supposed to know what you do and don’t know? We can’t tell you everything. Did we need to tell you to get to the airport a couple hours before your flight? No. Did we need to tell you that you have to go to the ticketing counter before going to your gate? No. You already knew these things and we didn’t have to inform you. So how should we know that you didn’t know what to do with your visa number?”
As he had been technically teaching illegally, he had to immediately take a trip to Japan to get a teaching visa, and the hakwon made him pay for the trip, because it was “his fault.” When he requested a meeting with the owner, branch manager, and foreign manager to explain his position and protest having to pay for the trip (which they were deducting from his pay), he was nearly fired. The owner said “I think someone who doesn’t know how to secure a teaching visa is not qualified to do this job.”
According to Kim (1989, p. 19), in Korea, “it is indeed perceived by the listener as an insult, violation, or intrusion into his personal space for the speaker/writer to provide detailed information beyond what is actually required.” Clearly, the entire problem revolved around the interaction between a high-context culture (Korean) and a low-context culture (American). The low context culture assumed that all necessary information would be transmitted in the message. The high context culture assumed that the other person already knew what needed to be done, or would ask the right questions or do the research to find out what needed to be done. The take-home message here: be careful.
The high-context/low-context difference can also be seen when trying to convey information through an interpreter. Often, a foreigner from a low-context culture will say “Okay, please translate exactly what I’m saying.” Immediately the Korean who is translating is in a difficult situation, because in order to be clear (what would be considered “clear” in a low-context culture) the foreigner starts at the beginning, which may cover information that the receiver already knows. So an exchange like the following may take place:
Foreigner (to apartment maintenance man, through a translator):
Two days ago, my hot water stopped working, so I showed you and asked you to fix it. You said that the hot water would be on in a couple hours, but it wasn’t, and then I couldn’t find you again to show you. Then yesterday I finally found you and told you that the hot water was still not working, and you told me that it would be on by four o’clock. Then it wasn’t on by four o’clock. It still isn’t on. What’s going on?
Translator (in Korean, to maintenance man):
Literally: Water still not working. Meaning: Her hot water still isn’t working.
Foreigner (to translator):
I asked you to translate exactly. That was pretty short.
Translator, nodding to foreigner:
Yes, yes, he understands everything.
The foreigner is now exasperated because she is not able to communicate in the way she is accustomed. Her manner of communicating (going through the entire situation from the beginning to the present) shows the listener that she has been inconvenienced and that she is not happy about it. However, in a high-context culture, this is assumed: the maintenance man knows that she first complained two days ago and now that he has been informed that her hot water is still not working, he knows that she’s been inconvenienced without having to be told. In his culture, to tell him what he obviously already knows is somewhat rude. The translator, being Korean, knows this, and is trying to balance the foreigner’s needs with the maintenance man’s cultural needs.
The take-home message here is: be careful. The fundamental assumptions which underpin how you communicate are different from the people living all around you. Know that all human behavior is purposeful (i.e., everyone has a reason for everything they do). If you see something you don’t understand or doesn’t appear to make sense, it in fact makes sense to the person performing the action, but their fundamental assumptions are different from yours. When I see a Korean do or say something that would appear irrational, ill-advised, or even stupid if done in America, I don’t think “That’s stupid.” Instead, I usually think “There is obviously something I don’t understand about what’s happening here,” because I recognize that my fundamental assumptions are likely different. Conversely, I recognize that my communications may not always be received the way I intend them, so if I have something important to say, or want to say something about a subject that may be delicate, I usually seek guidance from a close Korean friend about the best way to approach saying it. A new teacher to Korea may not yet have a “sounding board” for such situations, however, so exercise caution if that is the case for you.
Hall, E.T. (1976). Beyond culture. New York: Anchor Books.
Kim, I.S. (1989). Korean language as pragmatic based discourse. Korean Language Education, 1, pp.12-24.
Park, M.S. (1997). Communication styles in two different cultures: Korean and American. Seoul: Han Shin Publishing.