This is the fifth post in a series. First post; Next post

Members of all cultures have a set of stereotypes about their own culture in their heads that they’ll roll out when they’ve got nothing else to say to a foreigner. I suspect that they’re only slightly more likely to be correct than the stereotypes about that culture held by foreigners. For example, British people will tell you that British people are always talking about the weather. And Korean people will tell you that Korean people are always very busy. It’s like “Korean food is spicy” and “Korea has four seasons”: things that you hear over and over again from Koreans when they’re trying to be friendly. Fair enough. Small talk has its purpose, and especially in someone’s second language I don’t blame them for not having anything interesting to say. However, the busy-busy culture in Korea is actually just an expression of self-pity in a culture that often encourages self-pity instead of action.

When you are first exposed to a Korean working environment, Koreans will warn you to be ready for things to be “dynamic”. What they’re alluding to is last minute changes from those higher up in the hierarchy, imposed on those below. Or rather: last minute notice of such changes. Sometimes things happen that mean plans have to be changed at the last minute. In Korea, decisions might well be made but those lower down the hierarchy won’t be told until much later, if they’re told at all. I’ve prepared for several classes that my pupils don’t come to, because some other event was planned some time before, but we weren’t told of that event.

So far this is just another example of the priorities of those further up the hierarchy dominating the priorities of those further down; I’ve already written about this in a previous post in this series. In this case of changing plans, you might think that this is something that adults ought to be able to cope with. Indeed, I’ve got better at going with the flow thanks to working here. But the truth is that there’s a limit to how much disruption individuals can handle before effectiveness starts to go downhill. And what results is the busy-busy culture. When one knows that any decisions one makes might be overridden by someone higher up at short notice, there’s no ownership of one’s work and so it’s very hard to motivate oneself properly.

Here is the thought process. You’ve got something to prepare: perhaps teaching materials and a lesson plan for a class in the school holidays. But you know that you’ll very likely end up redoing large parts of it at the last minute, because those above you won’t discuss the plan with you and give their approval until a few days before the lesson. So you do just-good-enough job in the time that you could and should be preparing interesting and engaging materials. It’s impossible to engage with and take pride in one’s work, and so the work suffers and when this happens enough, the whole job starts to look like a charade.

With this thought process in place, when doing some work to a deadline, there are two phases. Long before the deadline one isn’t busy at all, because the real work can’t be done without the approval which’ll come at the last minute. And then close to the deadline one will be extremely busy hammering out materials to fit the superior’s expectations, inevitably much the worse for being rushed.

This is the sense in which Koreans are “always busy”. They’re really not, most of the time. But sometimes they are, in the most depressing sense of being busy. Koreans and foreigners low in the hierarchy, when you ask them how they are, will tell you how busy they are, because they’re under some last minute pressure to produce something. They’re not doing their best work, they feel like their talents are being wasted, and in the case of teacher’s, they’re embarassed to teach the lesson they’ve planned because it’s shoddy once again.

The elements of Korean culture that I’ve discussed in the blog posts in this series are not questioned by Koreans. If a foreigner points out something like this and says, “maybe we can do better than that”, they’ll get a shrug and the classic line, “please understand our culture” from someone who probably hates it as much as the foreigner. So saying that one is so busy becomes a manifestation of self-pity. One cannot go to a superior and question a workload or request that they review something earlier than they normally would. Such a request would be brushed off. So instead one tries hard to project an air of being extremely busy as a way of protecting oneself from being assigned more work. This is a kind of self-pity.

It then passes onto the children. We occasionally give homework and it’s never something that’ll take more than ten minutes. But our pupils tell us that they’re too busy to do it. They don’t say that they don’t want to: they tell us that they haven’t ten minutes to spare. A poster on gives some examples.

We see then that telling people how busy you are is a way of avoiding more work and avoiding challenging the absurdities of one’s position in the bureaucracy. On a national level, Koreans like to use this kind of changing-the-subject when talking about national issues. Japan and Germany both did a lot of terrible things in the second world war, but the former hasn’t apologised to Korea for lots of the things that it did, and there are still a lot of old Japanese who think Korea got what it deserved and should be ruled over by them. This sentiment is much more mainstream than neo-nazism in Europe. Koreans are angry about this and like to talk about it. They make a huge fuss about territorial disputes between the two countries, bringing up school children to be “passionate” about Dokdo, an island that’s long been fought over. The mature thing to do is to have pity towards deluded Japanese people who think their nation a great power, and get on with handling Korea’s serious problems. Korea’s got a terrible suicide rate, not enough jobs and thousands of old people doing manual labour collecting recyclables. But when it comes to national politics, Koreans would rather tell you all about how terrible Japan is than talk about how they might handle any of their own issues.

A final example. I was drinking coffee with another teacher in my school a few weeks ago and we had just noted that as a westerner I full my standard-sized tea mug to the brim with water whereas a Korean will typically fill it halfway when drinking tea or coffee. He tried to explain this situation as Koreans always being too busy to sit and talk for a while; they want to drink a half cup of coffee or tea quickly and then get back to work. But all the teachers in our school have ours each day to sit around, if we want to. I can go drink coffee with him pretty much whenever I like. Working hard, steadily, is disincentivised.

This is the fifth post in a series. First post; Next post