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This Sandwich is None of Your Business: Availablity of Choices in Korean and American Culture

March 2, 2009

An interesting difference between American and Korean culture occurs in the service sector. Americans really like things made exactly the way they want. We add and subtract ingredients from our orders: I’ll have a Big Mac, no pickles. We now have services offered with a dizzying array of options, many not even on the menu, just known through word-of-mouth: You’re ordering a grande bone-dry cappucino, and I will have a double tall Americano, one Splenda, with room for cream. And put a half inch of cold water in last, because it comes out pretty hot. Orders like this are not uncommon in coffee shops, and it doesn’t stop there. Everything is fully customizable, from the computer we’re ordering off the internet, to the wheels we’re putting on our car (I picked the Alcionas with the machined black finish, dude!), to kind of pillow you want to sleep on some hotels (even moderately priced business hotels now offer you a couple options, while the Westin has eight or nine options, some exotic). Without having done specific research, I have a feeling that this makes Americans feel special, in a small way. This is exactly what I like, exactly the way I like it, and that means it is just for me. It is an expression of my individualism. Starbucks built an empire on this concept. Things haven’t always been this way. Computers used to only come in pre-configured packages (in the 1980’s and early 1990’s), and originally, you could have any color Ford you wanted, as long as you wanted black.

Now contrast America’s “customization culture” with Korea. In the service sector, companies spend a lot of effort to determine what configuration of options will appeal to the largest number of people, and that’s what they offer. If they are successful, it will be reflected in sales. Not to say you can’t ask for a combination pizza without onions, but there doesn’t seem to be an expectation in Korea that you can have everything exactly the way you want it. For example, I went to Mr. Pizza once and noticed that while there were a lot of different kinds of pizzas available, none of them listed the toppings, on the English or Korean menus. So I asked our waitress what came on the New York Special. She didn’t know and had to ask the kitchen. She came back with the answer, but when I asked her what came on the El Paso Special, she had to go back to the kitchen again. It was expected that one would like the description (“a mixture of chicken and southwestern flavors”) and order based on that alone. I went to a sub sandwich place with a Korean friend once, and he was amused watching me tell the waitress that I wanted a particular sandwich with light mayo, light lettuce, and no Italian dressing. She appeared quite put upon by all the requests. “In Korea, we feel like what is on the menu is what we serve. Until the sandwich is in your hands, its really none of your business,” he explained. “She’s probably thinking ‘If you don’t like what’s on the sandwich, why don’t you order a different one you like better?'”

We see this in the USA in some places too. I was in Little Italy in New York once, at the Ferrara Bakery, and asked if they had any connole with Genovese-style filling. “This is Ferrara’s,” I was told brusquely. [Read: “This is the way we make it, and we’ve forgotten more about Italian baked goods than you’ll ever know, so just buy the damn connole, or take a walk, ya mamaluke.”] A friend sent a slice of pizza back in Queens once because he thought it was terrible, and the chef came out and yelled at him. However, generally most service sector businesses are “all about the options.”

So Americans used to “having it their way” may find it somewhat of an adjustment when Korean service sector employees don’t intuitively grasp that. On the other hand, Koreans visiting America are sometimes overwhelmed by the options available. I have a friend who is a Korean Air Force officer, and he spent a year on a training rotation at an Air Force Base in Texas. His wife (also Korean) told me she was afraid to go into Starbucks. “I’d go in, and listen to the Americans ordering, and while I could understand every word they were saying, I had no idea what those words meant when strung together in that way. I’d ask for a cappucino, and the barista would ask me if I wanted it regular, wet, dry, or bone-dry. Did I want it in a to-go cup or a for-here mug? Would I like to try an espresso brownie with it? There were sometimes more options I can’t remember. I just want a cappucino!” This reminds me a little of the scene in Moscow on the Hudson when Vladimir, a recently-immigrated Soviet-era Russian in NYC goes to a supermarket to buy coffee for the first time, and when he finds half an aisle devoted to dozens and dozens of brands and varieties, hyperventilates and ends up in the hospital (remember, this was a man used to standing in line and taking whatever was handed him when he got to the front: “Do you have size 11 shoes?” “No, only size 8.” “Great, I’ll take 3 pairs.”). So on the other side of the coin from Americans who are used to lots of options, we have Koreans who aren’t. They rely on the company to put forth its best effort, and either that’s good enough for them, or they shop somewhere else.

Recently Mr. Pizza has come out with a “Build your own pizza” option, which looks just like a standard American custom pizza menu: a base price (depending on crust type and size), plus a certain amount for each topping. One upside is that double cheese doesn’t count as two toppings like it does some places stateside. I’m also seeing evidence of a move toward more customization/options in other businesses as well. I’m NOT saying this is a good thing (or a bad thing), but it is notable that it is happening. Is this specifically because Korean customers are letting businesses know they want more options? Or is it because foreign chain businesses that offer lots of options are doing well, and the domestic competition is getting wise to it? I have no idea.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. March 2, 2009 6:16 pm

    Eh, all in all I kind of prefer the Korean way. Or, at least I can understand it better. Working at McDonald’s in high school and college pretty much all our grill orders were “special” (i.e., deviated from the menu). Not a huge deal since everything was made to order anyway, but still, you’d get orders for stuff like extra well-done burgers, hamburgers with all the Big Mac toppings, extra this, no that . . . I agree with the line that “Hey, this is what a McDonald’s hamburger is, and if you don’t want it like this, then you don’t want a McDonald’s hamburger.” I suffer by my own attitude, though . . . I like Big Macs but don’t like cheese on burgers, so in Korea I’m too afraid to try and order one no cheese because i know it’ll take, like, three tries.

  2. March 8, 2009 12:18 am

    In Seattle there’s a local chain called Dick’s. Their burgers are pre-made, and they don’t do made-to-order. You get four choices: burgers, cheeseburgers, and special burgers and cheeseburgers, which are the former plus lettuce and pickles. I went there once with a friend, and we pulled into the drive-thru, and he said “I’d like two burgers, no mustard…” and they said “We don’t do ‘no mustard.’ The burgers come pre-made.” He backed out of the drive-thru. heh.

    That says a lot about American attitudes right there.

  3. March 8, 2009 10:18 pm

    see, I’d agree with you in general, but I’ve got two food allergies which throw a wrench into being that accomodating. I actually hated being that ass who asks about the presence of dairy in numerous menu items, every time I went into a restaurant, but I had to do it if I wanted to be in a room with other people later that evening, and if people are used to special-ordering, they’re both better equipped TO adjust the recipe, and more likely to know what’s in the soup (rather than having to run back and check with the chef about every ingredient).

  4. March 25, 2009 9:44 pm

    Hmmmmm. I don’t think the examples you give are uniquely Korean: Starbucks, Subway and Pizza are all things imported to Korea, imported along with the expectations and practices that accompany them.
    I have lost count the number of times I have sent back a coffee at Starbucks because it is not what I ordered. If the customer is able to order it a certain way then there should be no problem, ditto pizza, ditto a sub.
    Now on the other hand if you are talking about ordering your Bibimbab light on the Gochujang or your Kimbab without carrot, then that is a different issue.

  5. March 25, 2009 10:55 pm

    I personally don’t think the [Western] expectations and practices that accompany Starbucks and pizza have necessarily accompanied them here (and I wasn’t at a Subway, but a Quizno’s, actually). Have you ever watched Koreans in line at an espresso place order coffee? What percentage have “special requests” like “leave room for milk” or “leave no room for milk,” “I only want one pump of syrup” or “I want extra syrup,” etc? Close to zero. They order what’s on the menu. Even at Starbucks.

    I think the reason that Westerners send so much stuff back is because they’re customizing so much more often, and that isn’t something Koreans are accustomed to. If you order a pumpkin latte off the menu, you generally get one made right. If you order it “special,” the margin for error goes up.

    And the expectations and practices that accompany pizza? Don’t get me started.

    But your example at the end illustrates my point: I think that to a Korean, there isn’t a difference between asking for my Mr. Pizza El Paso Special to be made without onions and my local Korean restaurant bibimbap without carrot.

  6. March 28, 2009 6:38 pm

    So further to this I had a bit of a rant on the SeoulPodcast about this very topic. Encourage everyone to listen to it:
    http://www.seoulpodcast.com/archives/425

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