Welcome to Linguistics and Korea

Ever wondered why Koreans speak "bad English"?
Why it's so hard to learn Korean?
Why it's so hard to have "normal" conversations with Koreans?
Why it's so hard to fit in with Korean culture and society?
We don't claim to have the perfect answer to these questions, just a few hints that we hope will clarify the situation.
If you have questions, comments or suggestions, we'd be happy to hear from you. Email us at raphael.hadid [at] gmail [dot] com

Complaints foreigners make when they communicate with Koreans

Communicating with any cultural group we don't belong to can be uncomfortable. Cultural groups are not limited to "race" or "ethnicity", nationality, social class, gender, age, religious affiliation etc. etc. are all determining factors in one's culture, and anyone who has to deal with someone "different" will feel "uneasy" communicating.

Here are the most common complaints people make when communicating with different people:

1- I did not say anything wrong... why does he keep interrupting me?
While when we communicate with people who belong to our group we always know why we're being interrupted, when communicating with strangers we don't. In Korea, interruptions have to do with two factors:
-mentioning a taboo topic
-talking longer than we should.

Each culture defines taboos and the amount of time we should speak differently. In Korea, cultural, political, religious or social issues are taboo when addressing someone we do not know well. "Showing off" economic or social status is also taboo, therefore Koreans will feel uneasy if you give long explanations on how you got to that ivy league school or how everyone at your company respects you. The rest depends on people's idiosyncrasies. Some people do not want to hear about that church you attend, while others do. Some want to know about your the daily difficulties you have adapting to Korean life, but most don't.

As for talking longer than you should, some questions require longer answers in foreign languages but require shorter answer in Korean. Questions asking "do you like..." are often "yes" questions, meaning that Koreans do not expect your answer to be anything other than yes. Foreigners often complain that Koreans ask them their opinion on a topic, and interrupt them as soon as they start elaborating their opinion. When Koreans ask someone his or her opinion, they often expect a brief answer of the likes of "I like it, I don't like it", and no further explanations are expected. Age is also a determining factor and older men will tend to interrupt people more. Older men tend to be respected in Korea (the tendency is slowly disappearing) and dislike it when younger people contradict them or even express opinions or make comments in front of them. Older people are expected to "lead" the conversation and expect younger people to talk only when they invite them to, and therefore will interrupt frequently.

Finally, Koreans feel responsible as a group rather than individuals. Therefore, criticizing someone else who belongs to their group or something which belongs to the group is like criticizing the individual. Therefore, Koreans will tend to censor criticism related to their group when talking with an outsider to the group. This means: Korea when talking with a foreigner, the company or school when talking with someone who does not belong to the company or school, etc. Note that Koreans will tend to criticize their country, school or company once they begin to trust someone.

2- I'm trying to have conversation... why does he keep his answers short?
When Koreans converse, the older person tends to lead the conversation. Before the relationship is established and it is decided who will lead the conversation or if both can lead the conversation, Koreans will keep their answers very short. Therefore, when meeting a Korean for the first time, he will tend to answer your questions very briefly. He will then tell you that you are his "older brother/sister" which means you can lead the conversation, or that you are his "friend" and that both of you can lead the conversation. He may ask you to refer to him as your "older brother" which means that he will lead the conversation.

Leading the conversation does not mean monopolizing the conversation. It is a sort of "tacit" agreement on who will decide how to take turns in conversation. So if you are "leading" the conversation and don't ask him questions, he will not talk. If he leads the conversation and that you interrupt him with a comment or decide it is your turn to say something, he may not appreciate it and may do everything to finish what he had to say first.

3- Why does he stubbornly refuse to discuss the news?

I can't say that enough, Koreans only discuss serious topics with people they know they can trust. In fact, any topic which may involve different opinions or debates will be left to when both people know they can trust each other. This is because it is taboo to disagree with a stranger.

This means that regardless of whether the person has a Phd in political science, is a lawyer, or even a politician, they will not discuss current events with strangers. Note that if such people meet you they may compliment you on your beauty rather than on your country winning a world cup in any sport the previous day. However, once they trust you, they will discuss anything with you.

4- Why does he have no interest in my country

Interest in foreign countries are motivated by the need to know information about foreign countries. Koreans know a lot about the US financial system but do not feel the need to inform themselves about US culture, US politics or US sports.

Korea is an export-oriented country and does not feel the need to import from other countries. Despite some problems with agriculture, local Korean agricultural, manufactured and service products can be found. Cultural products are also widely available.

Therefore Koreans do not feel the need to know what is happening abroad, because it is a self-sufficient country. With Chinese and Indian products competing with Korean products in the global market, Koreans may sooner or later feel the need to inform themselves about foreign culture.

The reason they don't want to know about what you grew up doing in your country? People only listen when the information given is useful to them in some way. When they will want to send their children to study in your country, they will contact you to ask you about the local system there.

5- Why isn't he direct and frank when he talks to me?

Korean culture regards hurting someone's feeling as something which should be avoided. Therefore if he wants to say something that might hurt your feeling, he will keep it to himself. If you do something wrong, he might even take the blame for it.

These are aspects of culture that are not likely to change overnight, or even within decades or centuries. Lecturing Koreans on how communicating your way is the better way makes as little sense as them lecturing you on how their way is the better way.