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Why We Have So Much Trouble Communicating with Koreans

January 5, 2009

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.

Sources

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.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. Ed Wise permalink
    January 7, 2009 9:14 am

    Here I have to offer a different opinion. First off, I want to say that I disagree with the premise of this blog as written on the home page. You list three frustrations that foreigners might feel in Korea. You’re an English language teacher, I assume. Yet, you did not list the most obvious barrier: that is, language!

    Language is the fundamental frustration for a non-Korean. and a Korean alike. The language difference will come out when English is used between them. They can mean and hear different things in using the same words they’ve seen in books even with accurate syntax.

    I’ll point out that linguistics has advanced a long ways since the 1970′s.

    I don’t buy the high and low context dichotomy between Korean and English. Students of English will know that English is a lot more lax than Korean and many other languages. I mean, there are more choices as to how you may say something. Usage and placement of certain grammatical elements are optional.

    But, there is certainly a difference in how the Korean and English fluent speaker understand a context in the same situation that they experience together. Here are some points.

    *first, the translator is a go-between with a well defined social ranking, usually an underling of the employer, who must respect her/his position vis a vis the position of the employer or employer’s representative. Therefore, there will be boundaries to her/his ability and willingness to express her/himself beyond language constraints. For one thing, the translator is certainly not going to put his employer in a bad light or make the employer lose face by conveying an expression of criticism or accusation toward the employer.

    *the visiting English teacher from abroad will be regarded as having less social status than he or she probably assumes with respect to things in the home country. Employer’s and their reps or Korean employees will not make the problems of the foreign teacher a big priority. The foreign teacher may be seen as being poor, as construed by her or his having left to her or his country to go abroad to earn money. If understood to be without property and not attached to people with high social status and significant property, and not an owner or director of a business, and single, the foreign teacher will be regarded as a lowlier person whose needs and problems come after the consideration of the many people sitting on a higher echelon. The foreigner, anyway, does not fit into the Korean social system and sits low on the ladder. The visiting teacher is probably from a privileged middle class family or profession and used to being treated with a higher regard.

    *re naming and blaming that there is an instrinsic desire to avoid naming and blaming which has to do with a desire to avoid every social actor involved the experience of losing face, the employer, the translator, the immigration officer, the foreigner. As part of that view, no-one likes to say who is responsible for what has, could, should happen or is happening.

    *Yes, of course the dropping of the subject also assumes that it is not necessary to state the subject if everyone knows anyhow. I’ll point out that their is a lot about the context in which English is spoken that those using English as a foreign language don’t see. Humans communicate with a lot more than words and the cultural has to be better known for communication in a given language to be more effective, i.e., successful in communicating.

    *regardless of social etiquette, the foreign teacher’s visa is the dependent on a specific employer and the employer has the legal and ethical responsibility to assist the foreign teacher in traveling to Korea for the job and in living in Korea. AS the named employer on the contract and visa, the employer is responsible. That legal requisite conflicts with the social process, as indicated above.

    *Koreans and other Asians hold a perspective in which the big picture comes before the little picture. The Korean tends to view her or himself as part of a whole, not an acting citizen within a larger environment shared by others. That is why the country, then province come before the neighbourhood and building name in addresses. That is why Koreans will put the volume number before the edition or issue number of a book. They are not inclined to think in terms of personal space, which is why touching and placement of the body in close proximity to another person’s body in public places is tolerated and even natural among Koreans. I would say that this concern is saving face and avoiding accusation by not stating revealing an error or ommission, as well as in not assuming that the other person requires detailed information. It is to slight someone to infer that they don’t know something. But this widely different communal perspective versus the “Western” individual perspective.

    *that said, the foreign English speaker will more often hold an individualist perspective and think in terms of individual rights first and responsibility to the society second. Expressions of this may be: “I want this and I say that.” “I want service” “You owe me this”. Also, that foreigner will want all the detailed information first. She’ll feel that she has to have the facts, get explanations, understand everything. It takes a more socially conscious individual to hold back and be patient and let other people and matters get addressed before those that concern him/herself.

    *In spending time in Korea, I am more aware of certain tendencies rooted in the cultures of the US and Canada, if not the UK and elsewhere too. People raised in those societies like to blame, argue, criticize, accuse. Furthermore, they accumulate and cite facts. They are analytical and search for explanations all the time. I get tired of that so it is good to get farther away from it. I notice it more when I return to those places. In seeing foreigners interact in Korean society, these tendencies stand out. It’s not hard to see where they stem from: in those legalistic societies, participating in society entails asking questions, finding proof, analyzing and explaining, determining who did this and that and why, then pointing fingers. KOreans and other peoples, fortunately for them, are not burdened with this need. They are raised to be more accepting and less questioning. There are problems and strengths with both perspectives, of course. We could do well to learn from each other and keep the best habits and traditions together.

    Let’s all take the human perspective. So, if facilities for hot water exist, then everyone should have working hot water. Everyone should have decent living and working conditions. Everyone is deserving. At the same time, let’s all be more patient and accepting.

    • tonyhellmann permalink*
      January 7, 2009 12:45 pm

      >You’re an English language teacher, I assume.

      I don’t teach English, I teach English Education, but I teach it in English. My current research interest is the reluctance of students to speak English in class.

      >I’ll point out that linguistics has advanced a long ways since the 1970’s.

      Hall (1976) is still cited today (and books based on his premise that are newer), by Korean linguists as well as Western. Show me an academic critique of Hall’s work and I’ll be happy to read it.

      >I don’t buy the high and low context dichotomy between Korean and English.

      Fair enough, but you’re among a small group of people who are familiar with the concept, and reject it.

      >first, the translator is a go-between with a well defined social ranking, usually an underling of the
      >employer, who must respect her/his position vis a vis the position of the employer or employer’s
      >representative.

      You’re making a big assumption there. The translator could be anyone, and I’ve seen this play effect play out when the translator was a friend, a public school secretary, a hagwon owner, a Major in the Korean Air Force, and a stranger on the street, among others. Further, I recognize that my own experiences are subject to the bias of my own experiences, so I check things out in conversation with my colleagues, who hold Ph.D.’s in linguistics, education, and other fields.

      The paragraph that comes after this is filled with many generalizations and “statements of probability,” so I’m not going to touch most of it, except this:

      >The foreigner, anyway, does not fit into the Korean social system and sits low on the ladder.

      Why do Koreans want to know how old you are? Why do they talk to you in jeondaemal? Foreigners did not fit into the Korean social system years ago, but this is changing. They have a place.

      >regardless of social etiquette, the foreign teacher’s visa is the dependent on a specific employer and the
      >employer has the legal and ethical responsibility to assist the foreign teacher in traveling to Korea for the
      >job and in living in Korea. AS the named employer on the contract and visa, the employer is responsible.
      >That legal requisite conflicts with the social process, as indicated above.

      Employers sponsor visas, yes, but please cite the statute or KIS regulation that states the employer has a “legal and ethical responsibility to assist.” That would be useful in some of the research I’m doing.

      >Koreans and other Asians hold a perspective in which the big picture comes before the little picture. The
      >Korean tends to view her or himself as part of a whole, not an acting citizen within a larger environment
      >shared by others.

      But what is “the whole?” Koreans are cold to strangers, and generally treat them like non-persons (Breen, 2004). Some think this is because of Korea’s agrarian roots, where communities needed to protect themselves from strangers. I don’t know if this is the reason, but any Korean will tell you that Koreans are cold to other Koreans whom they don’t know.

      >In spending time in Korea, I am more aware of certain tendencies rooted in the cultures of the US and
      >Canada, if not the UK and elsewhere too. People raised in those societies like to blame, argue, criticize,
      >accuse. Furthermore, they accumulate and cite facts. They are analytical and search for explanations all
      >the time. I get tired of that so it is good to get farther away from it.

      I accumulate and cite facts. The stated purpose of this blog is analytical and searches for explanations, so you won’t get farther away from it here.

  2. Ed Wise permalink
    January 8, 2009 6:30 am

    On “translators”: touche!

    Lack of qualification and level of English language proficiency should be considered when looking at communication problems. I agree, the Korean asked to “translate” can be anyone around who appears to be able to talk with English speaking foreigners, maybe someone who got at least a B in some English courses and spent six months abroad.

    The term “translation” gets misused, hence my quotation marks. Translation is text to text from one language to another. In the profession, translators prefer translate from the foreign language that they’ve studied to their mother tongue/first language. As you know, texts can be made more accurately than speech and therefore a high degree of accuracy is expected of translations.

    With respect to speech, the term interpreting should be used. In the profession, the interpreter prefers to interpret from the learned foreign language to the mother tongue/first language. The interpreter interprets in the moment according to context. A lower degree of accuracy in grammar and vocabulary choice, for example, can be achieved and is therefore expected.

    • tonyhellmann permalink*
      January 8, 2009 8:09 am

      Translate: to turn from one language into another or from a foreign language into one’s own –Random House Unabridged Dictionary, 2006

  3. January 13, 2009 6:14 pm

    Couldn’t agree more with the assertions in this post. I have maintained, and often point out to Koreans that their language is quite “economical”, and you get bang for your buck in terms of words per idea expressed.
    The Visa anecdote is quite telling in terms of the relationship language has with culture / way of thinking / doing things and well worth remembering next time I ask for a raise!

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