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

It is often said that various east Asian cultures emphasise the good of the group over the good of the individual to a greater extent than we do in the West. In the Korean case this turns out to be an in-group, out-group culture that means less respect and more selfishness all round. Certain Western values, that I believe make life better for everyone living in English-speaking cultures, get applied much more narrowly by the average Korean.

If one is perceived by a Korean as being in their group, one gets treated very well. People make big sacrifices for their families, and make efforts to maintain ties with old friends. But if one is not in a Korean’s group, standards are lower. In particular, the fact that strangers too are individuals trying to lead their lives gets trampled on. It’s also the case that in-groups are often defined by societal expectations rather than genuine interpersonal ties and bonds.

A good place to see all this is on the roads.[1] Standards of safe driving are lower in Korea, and people will take risks that endanger others. Someone might run a red light because they’re late for work, scooters drive along the pavements and even those on push-bikes race along within inches of pedestrians, often pushing past them so that it feels like someone pushing past you in a crowd. Generally, other Koreans will accept as an excuse for this behaviour that someone was, say, late for work. In the West, I suspect that someone doing this would be reluctant to admit what they did, and others would not accept their excuse that they were late. The other individuals on the road, who are inconvenienced at best, and put in serious danger at worst, aren’t part of one’s in-group, so there is little empathy for their situation. Westerners bear in mind more reliably the fact that the rules are there because everyone is trying to use the roads to get on with their own lives, none of which are obviously more important than any others.

There are plenty of examples in the modern workplace. Across the corridor from my office and classroom there is a classroom where a for-profit company teaches English after the school day has ended. The idea is to give cheaper access to extra English tuition to pupils from poorer families, in order to compete with the hours and hours of extra tuituion that richer pupils receive in private academies. One day I invited the foreign teacher who used to work there to our “facilities office”. This is the office of the vice-principal and a few administrators, but it is also the closest thing we have to a general staff room. I made a cup of instant coffee for my fellow English teacher and we sat down to drink it. This caused huge uproar, because this individual is not a school employee and so is not part of our in-group. Koreans were whispering to each other around us and I had to make a formal apology to the vice-principal.

It was a cultural mistake on my part, but the Korean reaction was childish. Sharing a spoonful of instant coffee and the use of a cup with someone working in the very same building is a way of creating bonds of, at the very least, visual recognition, between people who are supposedly all trying to do the same thing, that is, educate the children who come to our school.

It’s also the case that some in-groups are more important than others, and this can be defined by societal expectations rather than interpersonal bonds. Koreans are very cliquey when it comes to friendship groups formed in school and university, and friendship groups from work. Family takes top priority, over school and university friends, who are over work friends who are over non-work friends. Of course, British and American people too will put their families first when it comes to allocating their time and resources. But we don’t prioritise to quite the same degree.

Here is a good illustration of this. Foreigners tend to find it very hard to get a Korean friend to take them and their friendship seriously. A common story (that I have experienced myself) is that a foreigner meets a Korean and starts to meet him or her fairly often, perhaps several times a week. Perhaps they do all sorts of things together: see movies, eat dinner, come over to each other’s houses and cook, drink together late into the night. They inevitably become close, as humans who spend this amount of time together generally do. But then after six months the Korean will suddenly stop making any effort to keep in touch, sometimes just cutting off contact.[2]

Maybe they got a new boyfriend or girlfriend, or a new more demanding job. Friendship is always situational and circumstances change. But time and time again, foreigners who find themselves feeling close to Koreans get hurt, because young Koreans make the effort to maintain ties with their school and university friends, but so often don’t seem to try in the least to maintain friendships with their non-work friends, which foreigners inevitably are. Evidence for this comes from social media. A foreigner who feels abandoned will see their former friend in group photos with old high school friends from ten years ago (as I say I’ve experienced this myself but I do not believe myself to be writing out of bitterness with any particular individuals). It’s true that foreigners are often lonely and isolated in Korea, and may well be assigning more significance to friendships than those friendships deserve. However, the number of foreigners who report feeling dumped like this suggests that this fact, the status of foreigners as being to some extent automatically lonely, doesn’t explain the phenomenon away.

Koreans often assume that they’re going to get married when they hit a certain age bracket; yesterday I saw an advert on a bus that said, roughly translated, “I’m 30 so it’s time to get married, so I’m using such-and-such a marriage dating service.” They then assume that they’ll have at least one child. Koreans often seem extremely preoccupied with getting married and getting those children out, and when one asks why, they often say that it’s a kind of insurance policy for when they get old, to avoid loneliness, but also for financial support. Most people around the world have this in mind when having children, but they don’t seem to be so driven by the fear of not having children when they grow old, and the desperation of not being married yet that seems to afflict so many Koreans, that has them focussing so much of their lives around achieving this goal.[3]

So we end up with the in-group, out-group culture bouncing back on individuals within the in-groups. One’s parents push one to get married and have children (for one’s own sake, but also the sake of the parent’s support network), and one feels under pressure to maintain the family in-group because just outside each such in-group is a selfish and harsh social environment. Koreans don’t feel able to act out of better, less selfish motives such as love. Having a foreigner friend might be fun, but not maintaining (perhaps quite superficial) ties with high school friends would mean facing up to the fear of not following the cultural pattern of having your family in-group, your high school friends in-group etc. Because of public unfriendliness and with everyone else being so cliquey, no-one feels comfortable enough to take the risk of not driving maniacally towards marriage. Trying to let relationships develop more naturally, considering marriage as a possibility but not a requirement, is too scary and risky in a culture like this.

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


[1] Here I am indebted to a poster on

[2] I’m ignoring the case where the friendship becomes dating. I know of cases of what I’m describing where both friends are the same gender, and when they are non-romantically-involved friends of different genders.

[3] Another relevant factor is Korea’s lack of state-provided support for old age and the lack of stable employment to allow people to build pension funds, but I know little about all that.