Friday, January 15, 2021

My First Cultural Faux Pas in Korea

Please go easy on us foreigners! Half the time we really have no idea what we're doing. Of course, sometimes visitors to any new place are rude, but most of the time we only mess something up because we're clueless. I've only been in South Korea for a few months and I've already made two cultural faux pas. What can I say? It happens to everyone.

My first cultural faux pas was a simple gesture. I interact with a lot of Embassy customers in a given day in my current job. To keep the line moving, I need to gesture to the next waiting person to come up to my window. (For those who have never done Consular work before, let me tell you: that first day and especially that very first interview are extremely stressful. But they all get better after that, thank goodness.) But as I was trying to get used to the computer systems and interviewing procedures and immigration policy, I fell back on things that were familiar to me. Specifically, the U.S. beckoning gesture for someone to come forward.

For way too many customers, I invited them up with my palm facing up and fingers curling towards me. Apparently (I learned much later than I wished I had) this gesture is deeply offensive in Korean culture. Oops! I'm very sorry for all of those people I unknowingly made a rude gesture to at work! I didn't know any better before, but now I do. I'm so grateful that someone in the office gently corrected me. I later looked it up and to my horror learned what I was doing is known throughout the region as a demeaning gesture more fitting for animals than people. Yikes!

A few months after I learned that first lesson the hard way, I made another cultural error I realized immediately after it happened. I was giving a public diplomacy (PD) presentation to Korean university students over Zoom, and during the question and answer session one student really struggled with my last name. Realizing my surname can be difficult for Americans, let alone Koreans, I said, "You can just call me N." In American culture generally and in the State Department specifically, we are much more casual than our counterparts overseas. It seemed fine to me to ask the student to call me by my first name. I realized my misstep immediately based on the look of shock on the professor's face. She unmuted to clarify to her student: "You will call our guest Vice Consul." Korean culture is much more formal and deferential to authority than American culture, so in that moment I became a little too familiar for the Korean context.

My mistake actually reminded me of a section from Frank Ahrens's book titled Seoul Man: A Memoir of Cars, Culture, Crisis, and Unexpected Hilarity Inside a Korean Corporate Titan. Ahrens worked as the only non-Korean at Hyundai a number of years back and writes with levity about the many cultural blunders he made. One of them, tellingly, was asking people at work to call him "Frank." He later learned that his casual style and distaste for titles actually diminished the relative standing of not only himself but all of his subordinates in the eyes of others. Cultural ignorance can result in all kinds of unintended consequences, but anyone with emotional intelligence and humility who lives abroad knows that well enough.

At the end of the day, don't go too hard on yourself if you're adjusting to a new culture trying to memorize all the new rules of engagement and unlearning your own habits. Nobody is probably as embarrassed or mortified as you are when you commit a cultural faux pas. Just like most foreigners aren't looking to cause offense, most locals aren't looking for reasons to get offended. The kindest, most generous people--like the overwhelming majority of those I've met abroad--are quick to forgive. And we should be, too.

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