Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Journal of cross-cultural clash

Originally posted at mojeopinie.pl

When the former polish embassor to South Korea has warned me about going to East Asia for half year long, he knew very well what he was talking about. He deliberately claimed that getting along here is not possible, not to mention becoming double culture competent person. Luckily I didn't pay attention to his speech back then.

August was like a honeymoon. Everything was exciting and new: beautiful women on the streets, mountains around, original cuisine and architecture, I loved it! At work people were initially very nice. They helped a lot with everything, carried my luggage, organized acomodation and gave the best computer to work at. They also remembered what is the most important here in Korea - not once I had to eat alone. After a month honey moon was over.

Subsequently weird things happened. I have done a lot to make friends among people from my lab. I kept hearing one constant thing: "Chigani obsoyo" I am sorry, I am busy. Later on I was in need of serious help with administration affairs and I didn't get one.

Reading the Geography of thought by Nisbett I started to wander why does that happen? What is the mechanism of fitting inside the culture? Is it possible at all?

Nisbett tries to descibe differences between european and asian thinking processes. Tries to give an answer to those and other questions. Why people would smash me with an umbrella without an excuse or stand on my feet on the subway? Why the body language does not work? Why do I have to push my way out of the bus? Why after asking for directions am I given wrong ones? Why women always follow men like squaw and never go in front of them?

Confucianism as the philosophy ruling for centuries in this part of the world gives partial answers to these questions. The same lady who ruthlessly smashed my eyes with her umbrella would sacrifice her life for her friends happiness, because a friend is a part of the group. I do not belong to her group and therefore I need no special attention or privileges.

If one of the readers goes for holiday to Korea and is given wrong directions after asking how to get somewhere, may not be surprised. Saying "I don't know" means losing face here. Such answers are not given at this latitude. Usually it doesn't cause major problems as both the subway and trains together with tourist attractions are well marked in English. However Polish professor at Seoul National University had recently an adventure with the lady in the drugstore. He had gone with the prescription from the polish doctor and all the substances mentioned in latin next to it. While later his wife inquired what actual medicines he was taking all the time and he had been drinking stuff for external usage. Cultural fear of losing face was stronger then the health of the patient and a VIP in one.

All such things should not mislead Westerners if they want to do business with Korea. Koreans know very well what they want in business and at first they protect their own industries. They would hire the best foreign experts in corporate centers but the management of chebols would remain Korean and companies would remain Korean by all means. A very small country, like the island surrounded by enemies is doing much better than Poland, which is not capable of building consise and successful long term strategy of foreign affairs nor it is eager to support domestic business like Korea does for recent 20 years.

What else can we learn? We can learn how to have fun with the group of friends. How to eat well , how to drink and how to sing at karaoke, no matter the day, weather or the hour, time shared with the others is what is important. Koreans can learn from Europeans how to dance. In the most famous salsa club in Seoul 20 to 40 people dance regularly ( but how they dance!) when in Warsaw everybody dances.

Cultural difference is very remarkable if take into account that Korea is copycating everything american for many years. Starting with talk shows, or self laughing soap operas similar to "Friends" through boys bands and girls bands ending with architecture. Copycating USA will not change the culture as according to Nisbett people in this part of the world simply think differently. I am very sorry to make general assumptions as East Asian societies and ethnic groups are just as diversed as European but both direct observations and scientific research support this.

Collective acting rules Asian citizen daily life. There is a significant advantage in that. All changes and modernizations might be implemented only by convincing leaders. The rest which usually depends on them would not oppose or protest aggainst anything. Even in democratic society like in South Korea. Basis of everything is the harmony of the whole.

Personally I believe that there are two things that Korean citizens could learn from Europeans. One is an art of making real friends. If a Korean person is in serious trouble would not tell this to anyone just not to be a burden for the group but instead might even commit suicide ( which is not that rare at all). There are exclusions like everywhere. making friends with Korean people requires exactly same social skills as it takes to make friends with neighbors in Endhoven, Berlin, Paris or Warsaw. Patience and tolerance.

Another thing is the project efficiency not time sitting at work. Poland is not a good example as both salaries and social structure resembles some of Third World countries. But in Germany or Great Britain one is paid for the job done not for sitting until 8 p.m. or coming to the lab on Saturdays. Despite that my boss is European and set up the Western standards of work, everyone is coming on Saturday anyway, culture is stronger. The same thing is giving Western managers in Korean companies a big headache. How does that happen that 3 Europeans do the same amount of work by 11 am and 10 Koreans cannot manage until evening.

That's very interesting because Korean managers in LG or Samsung branches in Europe are not that understanding and work efficiency is something strongly imposed. Why is there such difference? I can only guess that Koreans know VERY WELL what can they require from who.

It is high time for Western leaders to appreciate Confucianist nations. Their time is coming and it is coming very soon. It depends on us if at least partially they would accept our values - provided that we learn to talk to them at first. Cross cultural clashes happen every day to every European or American working in Korea or China. Someone I know had summarized it this way: " I am just a guest here. It is not fault of my hosts that I don't speak their language. If you want to know the culture, learn the language". East Asian economies will soon dominate over the world. The question is how many people in Europe can speak these languages?

Ooops... and it was serious again? OMG... sorry.