Rude Koreans, Rude Westerners
The Concept of “Rudeness” Viewed as a Social Construct
In conversation, several Koreans have taken great pains to explain to me their drinking culture, where everyone pours for each other, thereby demonstrating their care by making sure their drinking companions’ glasses are never empty. They tell me that their drinking culture is a good example of how polite Koreans are as a people.
However, these attentive, caring people will also stop in a doorway to have a conversation with a friend, jamming up the 25 people right behind them who planned on walking through that doorway. These same “polite” people are the same people who will push past me as I’m trying to exit a subway or an elevator, because they are too impatient to wait 5 seconds until the people getting off have had a chance to do so. They chew with their mouths open, smack their lips while they eat, and the older men pick their noses, fart, and sometimes pee in public.
The truth is you can’t hang a label on a group of people–or even one person–and expect it to fit. Are you polite? If you answered “yes,” then my next question is: have you ever been impolite? If so, then in that moment someone may have labeled you as such. So we can see that labels don’t really fit. People are how they act in the moment, and how they act from moment to moment changes, so first let’s drop the labels, okay? Koreans, Americans, Icelanders, Patagonians, Earthlings are neither “a polite culture” nor an “impolite culture.” They’re just a group of people responding to their environment the way they’ve been taught how. Discussions of whether or not labels fit are for armchair sociologists on anonymous forums. Let’s dispense with that here.
Okay, moving on to the meat of the issue, we basically view behavior through our own cultural lenses. We’ve been socialized from birth as to what is is irritating and what is pleasing. This is why what is irritating to one person may not be to another. Our emotional responses to stimuli are socially acquired and conditioned as well. Case in point: at my second hagwon job, when the Korean staff would begin eating in the lunchroom, one of the American teachers would leave, because the sounds of their mastication so enraged him that he “couldn’t take it.” At the time, it bothered me somewhat, but not nearly to that degree. His emotional response was a lot stronger than mine to the same stimulus (lip smackin’ loud-chewin’ munchin’). So we have an unfortunate combination there: one culture conditions its members to become irritated about something another culture sees as normal. Is one culture right and the other wrong? I think most people would say no, because if you say yes, the Koreans are rude, then you also have to say we’re cold, insensitive bastards for not pouring each others’ drinks in our own country.
So if you agree that this isn’t a case of who is right and who is wrong, then you have to apply that same logic to all interactions: Koreans aren’t wrong for stopping in heavily trafficked places to talk and forcing the foot traffic around them. They aren’t wrong for bumping you in the checkout line because they’re older than you and they think you’re moving too slowly. They’re not wrong for trying to give you workout advice in the gym that you didn’t ask for. They’re not wrong for pushing past you on the elevator. Or for any of the other things they do that may irritate you. And if they aren’t wrong, then they aren’t deserving of the blame for your irritation. So who is?
You may be thinking, “Screw this guy, he’s saying its my own fault that things bother me.” That’s not exactly right; I’m not placing blame either. I’m deconstructing this situation so you can identify all the moving parts. We’ve ditched labels and we’re coming to understand that this isn’t a case of who is right and who is wrong. Now we’re ready to talk about what’s really happening inside you and outside you when that 60-year-old lady hits you with her shopping cart to get you to move over a couple feet. Oh, did I say “you?” I meant “me.” That’s right, it happened to me.
I was at Home Plus looking at some tofu, trying to figure out which was firm and which was extra firm, not knowing the Korean translations of either of these words. As I stood peering at the tofu, I was hit in the hip with a shopping cart. Not grazed, but struck head-on, albeit lightly. I looked up and saw an older woman at the other end of it. She was looking at my feet. I thought maybe it was an accident and turned my attention back to the tofu. Then she hit me again. Harder. I looked at her askance, letting her know the contact wasn’t appreciated. Looking me dead in the eye, she backed the cart up half an arms-length and rammed me again. At this point it actually occurred to me to grab the other end of the cart and push it into her hard enough to knock her down. Fortunately, my initial anger was quickly overtaken by my sense of propriety and I moved away. She moved the cart to where I had been standing and started to look at tofu herself. I was so angry, I made sure to talk about the incident to my students, letting them know that such behavior in the USA might get you yelled at, or worse.
When that happened, I was in my first year in Korea. Now I’m in my third, and something similar happened to me a couple months ago. I got hit with a suitcase a woman was carrying, specifically to get me to move out of her way. I had a half-second flash of irritation, and I moved out of her way. Ten seconds later I’d pretty much forgotten about it. Why was my internal response so much different than last time I got deliberately hit with an object? Because I’ve got a better understanding of the Koreans and of myself. Now let’s take this situation apart.
The first time, when I was hit with the shopping cart, I viewed the experience through the eyes of an American: nobody hits or touches me without my permission. I saw her as an offender, breaking my cultural rules deliberately Surely anyone would be similarly offended by such an action! (Actually not; that was ethnocentrism kicking in. Koreans do things like that to each other as well, and they don’t fume over it: “She’s old, she wants me to move..eh, that’s fine, whatever.”) A major reason we get so angry when someone offends our cultural sensibilities, is because they know we will be offended, inconvenienced, or hurt by their actions, and they don’t care. Showing that kind of disdain for one’s fellow man is infuriating. When I’m in the States waiting for a parking space someone is pulling out of, and a guy on a motorcycle zips in quick, he knows he’s shafting me and he doesn’t care, and its that lack of basic respect is what pisses me off. If I could see that he didn’t know I was waiting, I might be irritated that I lost the spot, but I wouldn’t be rolling down my window to bitch him out (as I once watched my father do). The second time a woman “forcefully nudged” me, I knew that the woman had no idea that I’d be furious over her actions. She was just communicating in a language she’s accustomed to using in her country: ajjumma body-language.
If the idea that they don’t know the impact they are producing because they don’t know your culture helps ease your emotional burden, please apply it to the following situations: When the a woman pushes past you to get on an elevator before you can get off, she has no idea that her behavior is irritating. When an old man picks out a booger on the subway and then flicks it on the floor, he likely knows he’s being gross, but he also knows that because he’s really old, he’s afforded some extra latitude by his society, and hey, if you’re still stressing about seeing a booger 15 minutes after it has happened, then you’re wound a little too tight. If a Korean tells you to be quiet on the subway because you’re talking too loudly, he doesn’t know that you’re visualizing choking him to death. Older people say things like that to younger people, and the younger folks may disagree, but that doesn’t need to be voiced.
If you’re still with me, we’ve ditched labels and blame, and we’ve come to realize that Koreans aren’t telepathic and can’t know how their common cultural practices will affect people from cultures they don’t know well. But you’re saying “Even knowing all this, it still frustrates me when they do some of these things.” Yeah, well, we’re not Korean! I did say that the second time I got bumped, there was a passing flash of irritation. Why? Because I’m American. I have over 30 years of socialization that says you do not touch me if you do not know me. That can’t be erased, nor do I want it to. However, I do recognize that that’s my thing, my issue, my conditioning/programming/hard-wiring. Because I know its mine, its mine to let go of, and I let go pretty fast. I don’t like being bumped, and I don’t like hitting my head either, but when I hit my head I’m not angry about it for fifteen minutes. So why should I be angry about something that doesn’t really hurt? I’ve chosen to adjust my filters.
Now when I hear brand-new expats complaining about how they can’t handle it when Koreans do this or that, I listen supportively, because I’ve felt that way myself. When they ask me if those things bother me, I tell them “not really,” and they usually attribute it to my personality, as if I’ve got some sort of Teflon coating for cultural irritants and stressors. Its not my personality (well, maybe my personality positioned me to learn what I needed). Its what I’ve learned in the three years I’ve been here.