Skip to content


May 25, 2009

There is an interesting psychology to how members of a reference group respond when they meet each other. They either acknowledge the other person or they don’t. If they do, they must decide upon a level of acknowledgement: a nod, a “Hey,” a “How’s it going?” or another variant. If that reference group is in the majority, there’s less expectation (and liklihood) of acknowledgement (I wouldn’t say hello to random people I see on the street in Seattle, even though we both may be of the same nationality or skin color).

When I was an undergraduate, I went to a university that was about 90% European American and 2% African American. I worked with a couple of African Americans at the university, and was part of a discusion about the abovementioned phenomenon one day.

“When I’m walking on campus, and I see another Black guy, you have to say hello, you know? If you don’t, then you’re an a-hole because you’re snubbing him or her and not sticking together with your community.” I asked him if he was talking about people he knew, or people he didn’t know. He said both. “I don’t normally say hi to strangers, but on campus, I feel like I have to say hi to them if they’re Black. They’re likely freshman or transfer students, which means they’re going to hang out with others in the [Black] community who know me, and I don’t want them to say ‘Yeah, I saw that guy before. He isn’t very friendly.'”

So in his situation there’s a kind of a social pressure in his situation to say hi.

In Korea, among foreigners, I’ve noticed that in the bigger cities, foreigners are less likely to say hello to another foreigner they see on the street than in smaller towns. Why is this?

My intial thought is that it may be because in small towns, there are less foreigners in the community, meaning less choices for friendship within one’s reference group. If you’re at a hagwon with 8 foreign teachers, you’ve got a ready-made network of people who will show you around, introduce you to other foreigners who are likely to be friendly right away (as you come with an introduction from a friend), etc. If you are the only foriegner in your school, you’re breaking in from the outside. I’ve been in both situations.

Going from a smaller town in Korea to a bigger city, initially I greeted other foreigners on the street, but after getting snubbed a couple times, was socialized (through that rejection) to attempt to “snub them before they snub me,” meaning that as I’d see a foreigner approach, I’d get busy brushing some dust off my sleeve or looking at an object in the distance as I passed them. That was in my first year in Korea. Now I usually get a good look at them and smile if they make eye contact, unless they look particularly unsavory or surly (not usually the case).

Have you all noticed if reactions of foreigners to other foreigners are less exclusive in small towns vs. big cities? I’m curious of others’ experiences.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Jason Ducharme permalink
    May 29, 2009 8:26 pm


    One thing I’ve noticed about foreigners greeting each other in Korea has to do with how long the people have been abroad. For example, when I first arrived here I went grocery shopping for the first time and saw another foreigner pushing a shopping cart around and I didn’t really pay any attention to him whatsoever. At that early stage I had no idea how rare it was to see another foreigner. I remember also early on I saw a western person walking by me on the street and neither of us said hello. Nowadays that seems really crazy to me. After living here 5 years now I have a general appreciation of how rare and unique it is to meet another foreigner in Masan. When i see someone now, I wave go over and say hello, ask them where they’re from and what they’re doing here etc. My theory is that this has something to do with familiarity with one’s surroundings. When you’re new in a place, you don’t know what’s common and what’s unusual, but after some time you do. I also think that even after becoming familiar with your surroundings, foreigners living in the city see other foreigners so often (just my guess, don’t know for sure) that it is not really a novelty and hence they don’t greet each other like we do here in Masan.

  2. June 11, 2009 4:02 am

    That’s interesting. I had the opposite experience. I first came to Korea in 2002. Masan as well. When I first got here, because I didn’t know anyone, I approached all the foreigners I saw. After being in Korea a while and developing my own social network, I stopped saying hello to foreigners I didn’t know.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: