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

Love and marriage in Korea 1 - how Korean people date

"Promise you'll marry a Korean woman and she'll do anything" is a common stereotype among foreign men which is not always true.

Needless to say that no two Korean women or men have the same criteria when they date, or the same principles about dating behavior. As a linguist, I am interested in how Koreans talk when they date, and a common denominator is that compared to many Western societies, a lot of things are left unsaid. If you think that this "indirect" way of talking is a peculiarity among Asian people, I heard that Scandinavian, especially Danish couples also had that "indirect" way of speaking to each other.

Some couples date for years, 4 years, 5 years, 10 years, without ever mentioning to each other that they are in love or that they will one day marry each other in Korea. Korean society has very specific gender roles among young people, and men are still expected to do all the talking related to where the couple is heading.

But dating in Korea, just like everywhere else, is a little more complicated than that. Some men and women want to date exclusively in order to marry, while others want to try experimenting before getting to marriage.

How does it all start? Remember that Koreans never talk to people they are not affiliated to. This means that it is technically out of the question to go to a bar or night club, dance or have a drink with a man or woman we are physically attracted to or exchange phone numbers.

This is why the concept of "소개팅" (seogetting) is so popular. Seogetting is when a friend - "the third party" - introduces a friend -"the potential soulmate"- to a friend "the single friend" - so that they can eventually date. The process involves the third party talking to his single friend about the potential soulmate giving every detail: age, college attended, company attended, parents' job, family situation etc. etc.

Koreans take every detail into account and one small flaw can end up in rejection. Say, if the father died of a genetic illness, the single friend may refuse. Or the single friend may accept to meet the potential soulmate a few times, but may make him or her wait until progress in career is assured. Say, if the man or woman are expecting a promotion, the single friend may wait until the promotion is effective to engage in any form of dating.

Other forms of dating involve people dating people who are from the same organization, but since dating someone from the same school or company often involves a lot of gossip from former classmates or colleagues, the most popular affiliation for couples are churches or temples. The funny thing is a lot of single Koreans attend churches only in order to find soulmates, and then quit attending church as soon as they find their significant other.

There is no conventional definition for dating in Korea. Some couples claim that they date but never actually kissed each other, others engage in sexual relationships but deny to their friends, and to each other, that they are dating. It is not uncommon for foreigners to think they are dating Koreans until they ask them whether they are "boyfriends" or "girlfriends", and to their surprise, find out that they are not.

As I mentioned, gender roles are very important and men guide women in dating. Men usually choose appointment places, pay for meals and do most of the talking. Korean couples tend to avoid topics that they may disagree upon or which demand specialization: politics, society, the economy etc. and tend to discuss lighter topics: entertainers and yellow papers. Note that if they belong to the same organization, gossip may take an important portion of their conversation. If they don't belong to the same organization and one of the people in the couple has no interest in yellow papers, conversation may simply involve planning where to go next, what to eat etc. It is not uncommon for couples in Korea to have very little to tell each other.

Of course, men are expected to plan the future in an almost "unilateral" way: men plan everything, and women either agree or disagree, but never directly offer alternatives. Women may indirectly suggest alternatives for the future, as in saying "We should really go to the Maldives one day" rather than saying "let's spend our honeymoon in the Maldives".

Also note that it is considered "deviant" for a woman to "break up", so women will do everything, including date someone else, rather than tell their boyfriends "let's break up".