4 min read

By Guest Author

Dr. Horace H. Underwood
Professor Emeritus, Yonsei University

Two of the most common first impressions that foreigners have of Koreans are that they are incredibly polite and that they are incredibly rude.

In fact, the courtesy and kindness of Koreans is legendary and attested to by thousands of people who are fortunate enough to have a Korean friend. Overwhelming meals, unexpected gifts, constant and almost embarrassing attention to your personal whims: all of this and more have been yours if you have been invited out. This is not a modern invention; traditionally, one of the names of Korea was the "Eastern Land of Courtesy." The obligations of a host are paramount; the obligation of the guest is to lap it up.

On the other hand, the discourtesy and rudeness of Koreans is legendary and attested to by thousands of people who are unfortunate enough to have to walk on a Korean street. Overwhelming crowds, unexpected shoving, constant and almost painful inattention to where other people are going: all this and more has been yours if you have gone outside. This may be a modern invention: nowadays, one of the names of Korea might be the "Eastern Land of Discourtesy." The intentions of the individual are paramount; the obligation of the victim is to get out of the way.

Westerners have rather a hard time reconciling these two images of Korea, these two different sets of behavior, both of them from the same people. Hosts are so friendly; taxi drivers are so nasty. Is Korea really composed of two totally different sets of people living on the same peninsula?

Actually, yes. For Koreans, the world is composed of two sets of people - those they know and those they don't know. If you know somebody, then you have a relationship and are obliged, very obliged, to treat him or her politely, kindly, and with every courtesy. But if you don't know someone, if you've never formally "met" that person, then the person doesn’t exist. Such people don't count, and you don't have to do anything.

Thus your friends will buy you meals forever. I was quite close to one Korean colleague in the Yonsei University English department for over 30 years, and I was hardly ever able to pay for lunch when I was with him. He would say he was going to the men's room but sneak off to pay the bill; he paid in advance; he called ahead to arrange to pay the bill later; he dropped off his credit card surreptitiously on the way in, etc. This could have a case of courtesy used as a means of putting you in debt (you'd better believe it can be used that way!), but in this particular case, I think he just knew me and liked me and felt obliged. On the other hand, the people in the street in Seoul who push you and walk through you aren't actually being discourteous and rude, and certainly not anti-foreign; they simply don't see you. They bump each other just as much, and never notice it, whether they bump or are bumped. Other people don't exist.

It turns out that all sorts of things in Korean society are explained by this distinction between "in" and "out." For example, it is one reason why the ritual of exchanging name cards is so important. That formal introduction is the moment when the "other" ceases to be a non-person and becomes a person. "In and out" explains why Korean students are so clean in their homes and so likely to throw trash on the campus streets - the street is outside their area, the territory of non-persons. This distinction is reinforced by taking off shoes in a house; the house is clean space, while "out" is for shoes, dirty.

But I am an American. (Throughout this series of essays, I make comparisons to American culture not because I think it forms a world standard, but because it is the only non-Korean culture I know.) In contrast to this dual system, Americans tend to value a single standard of treatment for all people. In fact, equality of treatment is one of our most profound theoretical values. We should do things for people no matter who they are; we should be kind to strangers (even if we have to be wary of them nowadays). But this is not the only way to run a society.

American students assume that they will receive equality and fairness of treatment from public agencies, and are outraged when things are "unfair." Korean students have learned from their infancy that public agencies will treat them as "outsiders" and be unlikely to do what they ask. They know that the word "no" only means they have not yet found the loophole, the back door, the personal connection who will treat them as "in."

When Koreans look at Americans, they tend to admire our public behavior: traffic courtesy, not pushing or bumping, standing in line, saying "Thank you for shopping at K-Mart," etc. Koreans often say that public behavior in Korea needs to be improved. But when they get invited out by Americans, they tend to think that we aren't that wonderful as hosts. We invite them over for what is announced as a "simple lunch," and instead of the massive spread that a Korean would provide after such an invitation, they arrive and it's really only a simple lunch! Americans just don't go "all out" the way Koreans would.

In traditional Korean society everyone lived in a village and knew everyone else and had to be polite; thus, "Eastern Land of Courtesy." Perhaps only with modern urban life has the "non-person" problem become so evident. Most foreigners who are in Korea or who interact with Koreans are in a small "village," a group of people properly introduced who know each other. Most of the time, things are fine. But if you go out in downtown Seoul, look out!

About the author:

Horace H. Underwood is the fourth generation of his family to live in Korea. His great-grandfather was one of the first Protestant missionaries to arrive in Korea in 1885, and later founded Yonsei University, where his family has continued to teach. Dr. Underwood first went to Korea in 1946 at the age of three; after earning a doctorate at SUNY Buffalo, he served for 30 years as a professor in Yonsei's English Department. During that time he also had various other posts in international education, including Director of the Division of International Education and Dean of the Graduate School of International Studies, and Executive Director of the Korean-American Educational Commission (the Fulbright Commission.) In 2004 he retired and moved to a home in South Carolina near his granddaughter, but still returns to Korea regularly as a member of the Board of Directors of Yonsei University and as a friend of Korea. Dr. Underwood can be contacted athhund@fulbright.or.kr

Posted on July 25, 2019
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