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The Cultural Difference Between Korea and America Posted by on Apr 29, 2019 in Korean Culture

I have been living in two different worlds, between Korean and American 문화(moon-hwa:culture), since I met my husband. I am a native Korean and my 남편(nam-pyoen: husband) is an American. People say that it is normal for married couples to learn about their partner’s peculiarities in the beginning of 결혼(kyoel-hon: marriage). I started to realize that my husband and I often think and act quite differently, especially in social settings. Despite being married to someone from another culture for over a decade, there are parts of American culture that are still foreign to me.

 

One of these is the culture of social interaction in America, such as engaging in 한담(han-dam: small talk), or smiling with 시선맞추기 (si-sun-maht-choo-gee: eye contact). I got accustomed to this culture now, so  I don’t need to think too hard on this subject. In fact, I quite often enjoy making small talk with new people in different social settings. To look back, my 내성적인 성격(nae-seong-juk-in-seong-kyuk: introverted personality) might have been attributed to my social relationship skills in the beginning. There was a time that I had to put effort to feel comfortable with this culture since I didn’t grow up without a concept of small talk culture in Korea.

 

When I was in Seoul, I often took the 지하철(ji-hah-cheol: subway) or buses to go to school since the public transportation system of Korea is incredibly convenient and affordable. Although you would hardly find social interaction inside the subway. People usually look at their phones or doze off. People in a subway don’t talk to each other, particularly if they are a younger generation. Even if you smile to someone, people might respond with a blank face. Or, it is possible that they think that you are 집적 거리다(jib-juk-goe-ree-dah: flirting with someone). Although most people would be friendly and nice once you initiate a conversation in Korean, it can bring an unfriendly vibe to foreigners. It is not natural for most Koreans to initiate small talk with strangers in public. At least, it wasn’t for me.

Image by Pixabay

 

All of this may come from different cultural values. When you look at someone straight into their eyes while in conversation, Koreans might take it as 공격적(gong-kyuk-juk: offensive). If you talk to the elderly, it is 무례하다(moo-rae-hah-dah: disrespectful) to look into their eyes while you are talking. Koreans also value less talking, believing that to be the more prudent behavior. Therefore, the culture of small talk may be perceived as being a 수다쟁이(soo-dah-jang-ee: chatty person).

 

Image by Pixabay

The other difference that I have noticed in American culture is the social value in speaking your mind freely. I think most Americans prefer to speak freely in order to have clear communication and honesty. This individuality is respected in American culture.

It is a good thing to speak your mind clearly, but it can be misinterpreted as arrogance in Korean culture. For example, when a host asks you what you want to eat, most Koreans would say “아무거나요. (ah-moo-goe-nah-yo: anything, please.) It is considered to be 예의바른 (yeo-uei-bah-roon: polite) not to respond with a specific demand or request, However, it is acceptable to pronounce your personal preference to a host in America.

As another example, at work people would understand if you decline a company party or other social gatherings. It depends on the situation, but people at work would not likely 째려보다(jja-ryae-boh-dah: give you a dirty look) nor think you are being difficult. However, you might want to reconsider not joining a social gathering from work in Korea. It is important to participate in social gatherings at work to maintain camaraderie. The ideology of collectivism is still prevalent over individualism in Korea, even if the culture of the younger generation is leaning towards individualism.

My opinions about these two different cultures may be affected by my own personal experiences and personality. Some might disagree with my opinion, but this is how I have been looking at the cultural differences in Korea and America.

 

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About the Author: FlyHighOyster

Hi everyone, I was born and raised in Seoul, S. Korea. I have lived in Seattle for a while and I am traveling the world with my husband since 2016. It is my honor to share Korean culture with you all. Don't be shy to share your thoughts and comments! :) Talk to you soon. HJ


Comments:

  1. Kim:

    There are also shy — and other — Americans who feel uncomfortable with small talk or find it very difficult to engage in.

    About approaching strangers: Especially when i was new to Korea, on almost every train trip I took (I didn’t live in a city with a subway system, so I can’t really comment on subway talk or non-talk), at least one stranger would initiate a conversation with me (often insisting on speaking English rather than letting me improve my Korean).

    As to company social gatherings, I definitely agree; how-ever, a couple of my former students (both Korean) felt compelled to quit their jobs because of the pressure to participant in company social activities that they found unpleasant. I don’t know if this happens in America (I haven’t worked there for decades), though HJ indicates it is not a problem to turn down invitations to company social affairs there.

    • FlyHighOyster:

      @Kim Hi Kim,

      Thank you for reading my post. I can’t speak for all Koreans, but I think Koreans can be self-conscious when it comes to speaking in English. Although younger generations seem to be more confident speaking in English, most Koreans, that I know, are trying hard not to make mistakes when speaking in English. At least, I was like that. Maybe that is why foreigners perceive them as shy people? This is just my guess.

      My apologies, if I didn’t make it sound clear in terms of social gatherings in the states. I think it depends on what kind of working environment/culture you are in. Personally, I haven’t got in trouble when I turned down to company parties in the USA. However, you have a point. I believe joining social gatherings at work in the states is considered as someone’s choice, not as an obligation. Not joining social events from work would not likely make you feel compelled to quit your job in America. My point was that the consequences of turning down social events at work can be detrimental to one’s job security in Korea compared to America.

      Hope I make sense.

      Thanks!


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