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When Culture Gets Too Close For Comfort

Blog posts, forum threads and social media abound with lengthy explanations for cultural misunderstandings between Westerners and Koreans, usually putting the blame on Confucianism. But sometimes, something much simpler is called for, argues James Turnbull.

The very first Korean man I met put his hand on my thigh.

I was young, stressed and already freaking out as the enormity of moving to Korea hit me. By the time I’d finally strapped myself in on the plane, I was just about ready to snap. So, when the very friendly guy from Daegu next to me introduced himself, and suddenly began groping me?

But I didn’t snap, because the day before I’d read that Koreans were very touchy-feely, including the men; it was all I needed. I was still wary, of course, but quickly realized he was just being very friendly, in his own way.

Same with a university student of mine last week, who started stroking the hairs on my arm as I was explaining something to her. Or an ex-student of mine who saw me in the corridor the next day, and, just delightedto see me, came bounding up to me as if to plant a big kiss on her favorite uncle. She seemed surprised at my flinching, yet completely unconcerned that she was standing closer to me than my wife normally does.

“There is often something to such explanations. But other times, they can be quite tortured, and obscure more than they enlighten. When that happens, it can be helpful to remember that Koreans and Westerners are all just people too and to seek a simpler explanation accordingly.”

Koreans, I’m constantly reminded, have a very different sense of personal space than that which I was raised on.

But sometimes, such simple explanations just don’t seem to cut it, and something deeper seems called for. When your (male) boss gets in your face? Perhaps he’s repeating what he learned during his military service. When your Western coworkers seem unsociable? Perhaps it’s because they haven’t experienced the months-long induction camp common at Korean companies, where new trainees live together and get to know each other very well. When you’re a woman, and you’re constantly hit on when you’re just being friendly? Perhaps it’s because of ‘yellow fever’ or Occidentalist stereotypes. And so on.

There is often something to such explanations. But other times, they can be quite tortured, and obscure more than they enlighten. When that happens, it can be helpful to remember that Koreans and Westerners are all just people too and to seek a simpler explanation accordingly.

Let me give you an example that, well, changed my life.

For various reasons, my high school in New Zealand, Macleans College, probably had (and still has) the highest number of Taiwanese students in the country. So, naturally, I started hanging out with some of them. But that’s when the problems started: I couldn’t put my finger on it, but something about them just really, reallybugged me. I started finding excuses to avoid them. I got close to deciding that Taiwanese people, and by extension all Asians, just rubbed me up the wrong way for some reason. In turn, they later admitted to me they were angry how friendly Kiwis appeared at first, yet cold, unwelcoming and really rather racist once you got to know them.

Fortunately, I figured it out in time: They were standing too close to me.

You’re probably aware that we all have various ‘zones’ around our bodies. Generally speaking, there is the ‘intimate zone,’ ‘personal zone,’ ‘social zone’ and ‘public zone,’ depending on who can enter them without making us feel uncomfortable. Step into the wrong zone though, and people instinctively tense up. That’s why it’s so awkward to talk normally in a crowded elevator or subway, why we never, ever make eye contact with strangers while we’re on them, and why we feel compelled to stare at our phones or the elevator number until we can – with great relief – leave and be ourselves again. They’re all part of the social code that’s developed to help people overcome the tension caused when we can’t avoid being squeezed together.

too close for comfort

(That tension may sound like no big deal, but it’s so explosive that, in volatile crowd situations, the first thing the police do is to split people into smaller groups to calm them down.)

Now imagine being squeezed together 24/7. It means that your average East Asian, who tends to live in a dense city, usually has much smaller zones than your average Westerner. So when they meet, the potential for misunderstandings is magnified before they even speak.

Picture this: A Korean woman meets a Western male colleague for the first time. She is friendly and welcoming, and moves closer to him until he’s in her social zone accordingly. But his own social zone is much wider than that, so to him, she’s actually moving into his personal, even intimate zone.

Before I came to Korea, I dated most of the women that did that.

He may respond positively to her perceived advances, not helped by any ‘yellow fever’ stereotypes he has and/or if she’s touchy-feely, or he may feel uncomfortable and step back to put her in his social zone again. She, wondering why he’s so standoffish, may step forward to put him in hers again to keep being friendly; he steps back … and they end up chasing each other around the room.

Likewise, your boss may not be in your face so much as standing at a distance appropriate for Korean workplaces. Or, if you’re Korean, and having trouble getting to know Westerners, consider that they’re not necessarily being unfriendly -they may just be standing at a distance that’s comfortable for them.

Similar examples abound. Often, these are chalked up as ineffable ‘cultural misunderstandings,’ but this is really just a lazy, catch-all term that covers many simple things that can be learnt easily and that are of enormous help when navigating a new culture or meeting foreigners. Knowing about different zones is one, which is still helping me after 14 years in Korea. It’s also good to remember that your pushy boss may just be a jerk too, whether by Korean, Western or any society’s standards.

According to the book Culture Shock! Korea,though, Koreans invade my space because they think of me as a ‘nonperson,’ all due to -you guessed it – where I rank in their Neo-Confucian hierarchy.

My advice? Bin books like that, and read something like The Definitive Book of Body Language by Allan Pease instead. You won’t regret it!

James Turnbull’s popular blog, The Grand Narrative, discusses Korean sociology through gender, advertising, and popular culture, and has become one of the leading Internet sources on those topics, with mentions in Time Magazine, The Washington Post and Jezebel.

Main photo by Gideon


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