In the United States, if you tell a person of the opposite sex you don’t know well that they are attractive, it is taken as an expression of interest. Since everyone knows this, its usually said for specifically that purpose. “You’re beautiful,” means “I’m initially interested in dating you, and now I’m going to gauge your reaction to what I’ve just said to see if the interest is mutual.”
In Korea, telling a person of the opposite sex they are beautiful carries no such implied meaning. It is a compliment, but in the same way that “I like your shoes,” is a compliment in the West. Beauty is just another attribute. When I was newer to Korea, I was shocked to hear a 35-year-old married Korean student of mine once say “My wife is not beautiful, but she’s my wife.” A Korean friend of mine once told me that it is common in Korea for young men to comment on or talk about each other’s girlfriends in the following manner: “This is my girlfriend.” [Shows a picture.] “Really? She’s not beautiful.” “I know, but she’s really kind, and she cares about me, so I’m dating her.” In the USA, to see a picture of a friend’s new girl and to say “She’s not pretty,” is to risk a physical altercation with some people.
In my first year, three Korean women in a bar said “Which of us is most beautiful?” and I went “Uhh, all three of you are equally pretty.” With my American values, I couldn’t be so insensitive as to pick one woman. That was tantamount to saying the other two weren’t attractive, and that would hurt their feelings (so I assumed). A few months later, when presented with the same situation (two women this time), I tried something different: I picked one. She grinned and said “Thank you,” and the other woman, to my surprise, turned and hi-fived her. So in a way, being beautiful (or not being beautiful) doesn’t carry the same emotional weight in Korea that it appears to carry in the West. For example, its not such a big deal to say someone is fat in Korea. Its the same as saying they are tall, or have long arms, or any other physical feature. Women socialized in the American tradition regarding body shape can be traumatized over here by off the cuff comments not meant to wound. Ladies, be advised, if a Korean mentions that you’re fat, he or she is most likely not trying to hurt your feelings. I had something much more potentially humiliating happen once: in a bar, a drunk Korean man I’d never seen before who’d had a few draped an arm around my shoulder, then cupped the thin layer of fat over my right pec, squeezing twice and saying “Oh, very soft. Like my mama’s breast.” I’d had a couple drinks myself, and I smiled and said “You’re lucky that I’m pretty comfortable with my body shape, else I’d probably be kicking your ass right now.” He appeared confused and wandered off.
I like the freedom in Korea of being able to tell a pretty woman she’s pretty without having to worry that she now thinks I’m interested, and is going to guess at my motivations during future interactions with me.
So I’ve identified that Korean and American culture has a different attitude about this facet of beauty. The relevant question is: why? What is it about Korean culture and history (and American culture and history) has caused each culture to have the attitude it has? Why are Americans so emotionally vulnerable to others’ perceptions of their body image? Why aren’t Koreans?
Maybe The Korean of Ask a Korean! fame will illuminate us. Or maybe my other readers have ideas. I suspect that after I start my Korean Studies program in a couple years, I’ll come back to my first year posts where I pose unanswered questions and provide answers in one form or another. At least I hope to.