Cultural gap in Korea

In South Korea, Travelby Cassie & Cédric3 Comments

So I have been working almost alone in Korea for two weeks, which was the first time for so long outside of western countries. I am far from understanding the Korean culture and even further from been able to generalize anything, but there are large cultural differences. I have been lucky to share many meals and drinks with some younger liberal people speaking good english and be able to openly talk about their society. Many points are not obvious at first, probably not visible at all just being a tourist, and working a few weeks within a Korean team was therefore very interesting. Korea is for sure a lot of fun, with great people!

A few thoughts:

– Korean work A LOT, and that is almost insane. At the company where I work, a standard week is 6 days, 7am to 7pm with an hour of break total (2x15min + 30min). But depending on the workload, employees are voluntarily working extras for free. During the last two weeks, most of the employees therefore also worked 10h on sunday, and it is usual that they work overnight (not in shift – but 30h straight), or at least until 11pm. It seems like there is some kind of pride to work more than imaginable, stay longer for the company, etc. I have had a few people gladly telling me in the morning that they worked non stop for 24h for the project – while I feel like I have to congratulate them, in Germany I would most certainly tell them it is stupid and they should go home immediately…
However, the productivity is very low – Korea actually has the lowest efficiency per hour in all OECD countries – , you can clearly see people fighting tiredness torture, sleeping on their desks if not taking a nap in the “nap room”.
It also seems that there is a small issue of planning tasks, people are never able to tell how long a task is going to take or when it will be done. It will be done by the deadline with crazy working hours, but something standard that could be planned for let’s say 4h, will usually be done between now and sometime in the night.
At the opposite of many other countries, the Korean government is doing everything possible to have people STOP working! Important increase of vacations, stricter controls of working hours, and Korea tries to have people travel and do other activities! It’s starting with conglomerates (the Chaebols) and slowly going down to smaller companies.

– The work hierarchy is almost like in the army, it is top down and nothing else. Whatever the manager says is to be granted as the truth and the most important thing. Compared with Germany, that makes the steering very simple – you talk to the manager and everybody applies it without discussion, but that also blocks communication as employee will never directly tell you something if not going through their responsible. But this also affects priorities: if an employee as a main task to do and whoever supervisor comes asking for anything, the supervisor becomes the very first priority right away – although it may just be en email, a powerpoint slide for next week, etc.

– Open-spaces are super quiet: 20 people and almost no noise! Quite different from my previous office with 5 people and a huge mess… Because of the top-down structure, no need of numerous coordination meetings and discussions, you just need to apply! Apparently, talking at work (even work related) makes you look like someone lazy and not professional -> solution: chat with your friends through Skype, Whatsapp and other Kakaotalk. Even if you have a question for your colleague sitting right in front of you, you should better text him the question instead of asking!

– Productivity and schedule are not the greatest, but failing or mistakes are very badly seen. That makes things for me, working in supplier quality, great: I have never had so far a supplier starting the production of so many complex parts almost without any issues! Easy work… At the same time, this can be a risky thing as culture with such behavior tend to try hiding issues instead of speaking up. Hopefully no whale under the gravel 🙂

– If you are a man and older, it is better. I have never had the situation myself, but it is common that companies officially only hire man for the only reason that “they are better”. No problem with that apparently. We have had a few weird situation, first last week being invitate for dinner, the two people leading the project (two woman) were replaced by two other people not related to the project (two man)… The strangest was probably last friday, all people involved in the project had dinner at a restaurant in a friendly atmosphere – man and woman – until at 8pm, the oldest guy decided that it was over, time for woman to go home (like 8pm is already too late for them, and they should clean/cook instead) and man to go to some weird shady karaoke. Most of the people weirded out, the woman simply resigned, and younger people not necessarily enthusiastic… until we explained him that we would better all stay together and he can go wherever he wants afterwards. This may slowly change with younger people, but it’s still far. To not help female employees, a Korean woman alone with foreign males has good chances to be harassed by other Koreans for being a prostitute… and in some cases the foreigner may be then manhandled. So they need to have a Korean male around for cultural well behavior.

– It does not feel like that at first, but Korean society is very misogyne and patriarchal, as mentioned in the point above. Whereas there is a relative percentage of females, none of them as any position with responsibility. Actually, the role of a woman is not quite the dream place in the Korean society – until you become among the oldest in the family, also called “Ajumma”.
Many marriages are more or less arranged (not directly, but basically your marriage is the choice of your parents and they will only accept if from their very specific conditions: younger people apparently always accept the decision of their parents – if they do not like your girlfriend, you will leave her immediately). Because renting an apartment is almost impossible in Korea (the concept does not really exists – except for expats in Seoul, but the caution can be in the 50.000US$ range), you have to buy your apartment – and real estate prices being very expensive, a lot of people cannot afford it. What happens is thus that the son will remain at his parents, his wife move to his parents in law and become the maid/cook/nursery/anything annoying. Her life becomes then controlled by the mother in law who – because she had that role previously – stop doing anything except commanding and giving orders (the “Ajumma”). From that moment, the spouse dream will be: 1/ to raise a son as fast as possible, and get him a wife so that she can replace her 2/ have the mother in law live not too long… The result is that lots of younger Korean girls do not want to ever get married (or boyfriend, but a boyfriend is some sort of illegal status – it’s marriage or nothing), and man have more and more to look for wives in southeast Asia.
Another result of these arrangements is the large amount of prostitution (although a tabu topic – there are tens of thousands of “love motels”, visible everywhere in every village but they officially do not exist: no website, no contacts or address, and talking about it can make you have problems), South-Korea is apparently one of the top countries for unfaithful husbands in the world, some “imports” of sex-workers from Russia and south-east Asia… all for the dominant patriarchs.

– Similarly, and probably because of its history of isolationism, a foreigner is often culturally suspicious. It is not uncommon to have places like bars and clubs banning officially any foreigners. Companies are also allowed for example to discriminate depending on the nationality and also on the origin (even if Korean). African people and south-east asians are at the very bottom of the scale. It exists elsewhere, but here as a boss you are allowed to say that you do not hire any black people! The image of westerners in more conservative medias is usually that they bring sicknesses and decadence… again, that seems to be more the view from holder generations – and it seems that many of them got stuck with the image of western soldiers during the Korean war, which was not the greatest. Younger ones are partying in Cancun, want to go to L.A., drink beers at the Oktoberfest and see the Eiffel-Tower 🙂

– Because of work-loads, cultural and societal pressure as well as the need “to be rich and succeed”, failure is not well accepted. Not just for yourself, but also for the image of your family, etc. And failure can be very large: unemployement, homeless, exams,… The result is the highest suicide rate in rich countries: 30% of 25-59 yo death are suicides, and that is the top mortality factor at that age.

– But, also because your work is such a large part of your life, companies do everything to build up teams and to make your job some kind of second family and your colleagues to be your friends. Some companies will offer you an apartment from their own employee residential area for the first years, pay for team events, pay for partying and alcohol (within colleagues), restaurants almost weekly, etc. Employees are thus very close to each other and very attached to their companies. I have been one evening to get a beer with the project team and many of them were still wearing the company shirts and jackets. Larger companies seem to take care of their employees, but in return expect a full commitment…
On top of the scale is Samsung, the largest conglomerate (500.000 employees and 17% of the country GDP – they do absolutely everything in Korea from ships to cars, electronics, insurance, hotels, construction, medecine, clothing, …), were employees are called Samsungman and basically seen as the elite and ultimate career goal. With an important white collar corruption, the CEO of Samsung is said to be more influent than the president of Korea.

– In 1975, North-Korea was richer per capita than South-Korea! That may seem unbelievable, but the GDP has been multiplied by 50, in 50 years! The increase really started only in the 80s. The level of wealth per capita is thus comparable to Spain and younger generations wish to have a society similar to western countries… but 50 years ago, South Korea was at the same level as Niger (also at that time). Society has been massively transformed, but older generation were born and raised in a country centuries behind – and they are now the current managers.

– If you are a couple, it is usual to have matching close – it can be from only the same colored shoes, to a complete outfit or the clothes of one person answering the other person’s clothes.

– English is kind of an issue in south-Korea, the government has tried and invested a lot of money in education of foreign languages (and native english teachers are more than welcomed by the government, and highly paid – over the national average). First foreign language is usually english, then either Japanese, French, or Chinese (in that order). However very few people speak english, even in the international companies – and basically nobody over 60 years old. Most of writings are only in Korean (and Korean alphabet), even road signs. On the shop-floor and technicians, it is also 0 english, engineers have usually a very good vocabulary about technical topics, but nothing about daily stuff (you may discuss about bearings and screw torque, but not about your week-end or the weather!), and actually only managers and people who have been abroad (i.e. mostly studying in the US) will be able to communicate. And whereas non speakers I found tended to be reserved, those speaking english will do everything to help you and become your friend in a finger snap: a liquor shot on top of the mountain, invite you to eat, get your email, phone-number, all sort of social networks (Kakaotalk!) and want to do business with you (I met one person in Gyeongju exporting Korean furnitures to the US and asked me if I wanted to help him start in Europe!) -> new job: make europeans eat on the floor with chopsticks? For sure a good challenge…

– Oh, yes: ten-thousand in Korean also means “a lot” or “infinity”, which is very confusing because if you talk about prices they may simply answer you “ten thousand” in English, but that does not mean 10.000! The 10.000 for infinity has no unit, because 10.000 Won is equivalent to 7,5€, so not much… I have had the case for a discussion about apartments in Seoul, where it was first 10.000 and later actually more like 1B₩, and the new Samsung cellphone which was also 10.000₩ (I was almost ready to get a container full of them shipped to Europe), turned out to be 1M₩!

– Pop music is a big deal in Korea, and the local pop is called K-Pop. South Korea is pretty small but has an insane amount of bands, with teenagers living in crazy conditions to become famous for at best just one hit. This implies almost living recluded, in autarky except during the shows. They have crazy trainings, massive cosmetic surgery and a huge pressure to succeed. The result is honestly very impressive and songs actually pretty catchy. I can bet that K-Pop is quickly going to be heard a lot more oversees (or across the continent). Music on the radio, except that they talk too much for my inexisting knowledge of Korean, is almost only pop music, not just K-Pop. By the way, Boney-M is famous in here too!
I want a referendum about the Eurovision (aka. the most soporific dull TV program) to have South-Korea replace England!

– Continuing the K-Pop, we went to a karaoke place last friday with the colleagues (if you have read from the beginning, that was after the restaurant, after a few drinks, and still with male AND female employees… in a karaoke for singing, not for a maniac third generation man). I was not very convinced at the beginning but it is actually pretty fun. The music is loud anyway, your voice “improved” by the system and you get a score at the end – hey, I even got a 98% with Daft Punk “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger”! The catalog of songs has tens of thousands of references, in all languages (mostly Korean and English though and a few Japanese). With different types of people, you switch from Korean folk songs with older people to K-Pop with younger ones to the Beattles and Madonna… Apparently some Koreans are almost addicted to it, train 4 times a week and have competitions between each other!

– Possibly more if I have more thoughts in the next days! (I have a deal concerning Kimbaps with some employees)

-> and probably a post about food soon… I have been fed pretty much every possible dish existing on the peninsula (except dog meat, as I did not show a big interest 🙂 ). We will see if one of them pisses me off in the next days and make me want to have a revenge!

Until then, some music:

> The current buzz!

> The hit of 2016:

-> and you can search Gangnam-style on your own! (Cassie, can I get a yellow suit?)


  1. You may not have a yellow suit, but you should take a k-pop dance course before you get back!

  2. Enjoyed your observations about the culture. My sister talked about her experience working in an Asian company which echoed your thoughts. She would be the first to leave at day end of work and get picked on for leaving early. Yet, she said the employees hovered around her waiting for her to leave so they could go home without shame of being the first.

  3. Cédric, I guess nobody from KAI will glance at your blog otherwise they will look at you differently… 🙂 your are on the way to compete with the Lonely Planet… Your future job? enjoy your remaining days while learning k-pop dance to impress Cassie….

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