ESL South Korea

Cross Cultural Communication

Anyone who’s been married, or in a relationship long enough, will testify that misunderstanding and miscommunication are the biggest triggers to causing conflict.  If people who speak the same language and have the same cultural background can misunderstand each other, how much more are listeners from diverse worldviews and different language ability susceptible to misunderstanding and confusion.

In Korea, where Confucianism holds strong, social relationships are loosely defined according to gender, age and social status.  So depending on the context, it may perceived as rude for a young, inexperienced teacher (you) to approach and older, well-educated Co-teacher.

Social hierarchy is important in Korea and should always be kept in the back of your mind when trying to resolve conflict.  It’s better to first speak to your direct superior (i.e. your Co-teacher or Head teacher), than talking to the principal or Office of education, and effectively jumping over your co-teacher.  Also, if you run to your Office of education or recruiter with every single issue, it will be highly embarrassing for your boss or co-teacher.  It’s better to try and solve a problem beginning at the bottom of the ladder, even if this seems inconvenient.  It respects Korean cultural hierarchy.

Language Interpretation

Be aware of different interpretations when it comes to language usage.  As a Westerner, when speaking to a Korean, avoid using direct language:  “You should do this” or “You must help me”.  This will more often than not be interpreted as a verbal attack, even though that’s not at all what you meant.
Alternatively, Westerners may misinterpret a sincere request from a Korean as a demand due to linguistic cultural mix-up.

Let’s use an example to clarify.  Imagine the following scenario:  After a successful class with interactive students that are making good progress, your co-teacher walks up to you with the following words: “You’d better speak slower to the students.”  Offended?  Naturally.  She’s instructing (no ORDERING!) you to change your teaching style!  Meddling and interfering is what she is!

But for many Koreans the subtle difference between “You’d better…” and “You should perhaps consider…” is completely lost and they might think the former just as polite as the latter.  Recognize and understand this, be sensitive to potential mix-ups like this and if your co-teacher is teachable you can even explain that “You’d better…” sounds demanding and somewhat rude.

Cultural Gaps

Bridging cultural gaps is especially important when it comes to interpersonal relationship.  If you’re going to be working in close proximity with a Korean co-teacher or employer for at least 12 months, it’s smart to be aware of the most prominent causes of interpersonal conflict.  The following are common culturally based misunderstandings between Koreans and foreigners:

Westerners are accustomed to more privacy than many Koreans.  Most Korean environments are not very private like the popular cubicle system we use in the West.  Schools often have a teachers’ room where all of the teachers sit, study and prepare for their classes.  Foreign teachers are often left in an uncomfortable position when all employees around them can see what they’re doing.  They’ll usually have no qualms enquiring about it too!

Personal Space
Personal spaces are smaller in Korea than in most Western countries.  Many tourists and teachers alike are shocked when they see a full bus of subway station with very little breathing room for half-smothering individuals.  Foreigners often feel uncomfortable when Korean colleagues walk or sit too close.

Bumping, pushing and shoving will inevitably occur when getting on or off a bus, or while walking around a crowded area.  Many Westerners are usually surprised when Koreans bump into them and simply walk on without apologizing.  It’s good to keep in mind that actions like these are in no ways vindictive or meant to be offensive.  Living in a small country with one of the highest populations per capita, people are used to cramped living are jostling and bumping as normal means of getting from point A to B.

Personal Questions
For Koreans, it is really important to establish age and social status as soon as possible so that they know how to engage each other.  Koreans will adjust the formality of their language, depending on who they are speaking to.  Therefore, questions about age, social status, marital status and other personal topics, will often arise immediately after meeting someone.  Don’t interpret these questions as rude, it’s just normal.