Difficult parts of Korean culture part II: Saving face.

Okay. To illustrate this one clearly, I'll start out with quite a personal anecdote, which so far hasn't been recounted in this blog. Because it really upset me at the time, not because of the situation so much itself, but because of the principle of the matter, which ended up coming down to what I'm going to try to talk about: saving face.

Saving face is a powerful part of East Asian culture that I definitely, definitely do not really understand quite yet. So I feel nervous even trying to talk about it. But I feel like it's important, because I know so many foreigners here really struggle with it, and it alone has led a good percentage of the ones I've met who are not happy in Korea to being unhappy in Korea. I've had countless conversations about it, with both foreigners (who fall on both sides of the getting it/not getting it divide) and Koreans, trying to understand. But I'm definitely not all the way there yet. Hopefully I can still come up with something valuable to say, that isn't completely off the mark. What I can say is that, while it's not something I'm thrilled to be dealing with in my every day life, I understand that it's a cultural aspect I don't yet "get", and I have not come out "against" it, in any sense of the word. It's an ongoing struggle for me. I understand and appreciate the basic ideal behind it, but still don't really jump up and down with a smile on my face when it affects my personal life.

So. Here's the story.

One night way, way back when, when I was still running around being somewhat of a wild thing here in Korea, one young Korean fellow I knew phoned up and asked me to come out. It was a week night, and I had to 'work' the next morning, even though the work was only deskwarming. I'm still pretty against any nonsense on a worknight, even if you don't technically have to work, but after ages and ages of his texting and ringing nonstop about how "누나 보고싶어요~~~! 진짜로~~!" I gave in and went. We did our basic kind of running around, and that was fine, and ended up in a bar I absolutely loathe, because again the kid deployed the 아 누나~~~~! tactic, and, whatever.

When we walked in, his friend immediately spotted a table full of blondes. Oh, a Korean young man's fantasy. He was gone. But my little buddy felt honor-bound to remain by my side. About fifteen minutes in, however, a lovely tattooed Irish gentleman had taken up a conversation with me, and I was quite otherwise occupied. I saw the kid squirming in the booth across from us. "Hey. Go find your friend. Go talk to the blondes."

"아 누나 어떻게하지?! 누나 [blanks in my Korean at the time] 혼자 [blank] 어떻게 [blank]?"

"Oh stop it. Go talk to the girls with your friend. Look! They're ALL blondes!"

After a few more sorrowful mutterings in Korean that I didn't quite grasp, eventually he went. Long story short, or shorter than it could be, he ended up coming over a while later to say that his friend was too drunk, and he needed to take him home, with still more postulations about how he couldn't bear to leave me alone. I waved him out the door with no more than a second thought, taking note that the blondes remained at their table.

Flash forward a few months and it's his birthday. After being the only friend who bothered to show up to his birthday party for several hours, and picking up the tab all night, even buying him ice cream at the GS25, because I felt so damn bad for him, eventually he says some of his foreign friends are finally ready to meet us. We wait at the station in Hongdae for the cab to arrive, and when it pulls up, out pile four or five blondes. I get talking to them on the way to the club, and manage to suss out that yes, they are indeed the same ones from the bar that night. Funny. I share the whole story with them, and we have a laugh over how damn young this kid is.

In the midst of the conversation, one of the girls mentions something that crawls under my skin and just won't crawl back out for the rest of the night. The first night they met this kid, they went to noraebang and a hof after being at the bar.

Now, miscommunications happen. And even if this wasn't one, what did I care, really? I don't care that he ditched me for the girls -- I had basically ditched him for the Irish guy (who, by the way, had proceeded to give a slightly offensive comedy act after he had gone about how he couldn't live up to the standards of the kid's permed hair and low-cut V neck top, and how I must be so disappointed). So... why was this starting to bother me more the more I thought about it?

I got it. He lied. He stood there and, in front of my fucking face, made all these unnecessary apologetic poses about how the situation couldn't be helped, and he was so, so sorry to leave the bar without me. Instead of just saying, "Hey those girls over there want to go to a hof with us! We're gonna get right in on that! Good luck with this guy -- text you in the morning!" He had done a whole fucking song and dance about the situation that was, frankly, just fucking insulting to my pride.

What, was I gonna go home and cry myself to sleep otherwise? How fucking insulting.

I walked out of the club that night without even saying goodbye. I tried to tell myself it wasn't a big deal, he's just a kid, just overlook it, but the more it sat there in front of me, the more I just couldn't stand the thought of looking that kid in the eye and playing nice. And, since it was his birthday, after all, it wouldn't do to make a scene. So I just left.

The next day, my Korean friend came over early in the morning to make breakfast and sit and talk with me about the situation. After I had finished explaining my side of things, he just looked at me with a face that I could tell was trying to piece together what had happened, from my perspective, and come out with something neutral in reply. The thing is, I already knew what was at the root of this situation: saving face. I just didn't know how to separate what, for the kid, was saving face, from what, for me, was a spineless fucking lie.

Here's the thing: remember when I said that preserving the group harmony in Korean culture usually comes before all else? Well, often that includes telling the truth, or being honest. Saving face is a concept that revolves around not making other people look or feel bad, not directly insulting someone's pride, especially in front of others. This also includes not directly contradicting what another person says, especially if that person falls above you in the hieracrchy, which means that American style conversations about politics or other contentious topics are extremely difficult for many Koreans, because they aren't used to just coming out and saying, "I think your opinion is wrong, and here's why...." To Koreans, the whole activity is quite base, tasteless and fucking rude.

That morning, my friend did his best, even while employing face saving himself within the conversation in order not to insult my point of view on things, to explain that what the kid had done, from the kid's own perspective, was simply polite. For that kid to march over to my table and announce that he was leaving with the other girls would have been, from the perspective of Korean culture, unbearably fucking disrespectful. It would've taken real balls, in other words. He had instead done what, in his culture, was what good manners and respect for me dictated.

This friend was already aware of my struggles with saving face, because we had come up against them in our own relationship. We had already had more than one long, honest conversation about how saving face is extremely difficult for me, and how I needed him, for at least the time being, to try to set it aside at times, while I also tried to make strides in understanding and coming around to it. This related to situations such as me suggesting we go to this or that particular place to do this or that particular thing, and him taking an awkward pause and then agreeing, which I was supposed to interpret as him saying 'no, I don't want to'.

Now. To Western readers who have not experienced this aspect of East Asian culture, this is all bound to sound fucking crazy. What is the point in talking around things, giving half-answers, non-answers, or telling what to us are flat out lies? Why can't everyone just say what they have to say, and then we all know where we stand, and that's it? Everyone's a big boy or girl in these situations. What's with all the beating around the bush? And how fucking confusing....

But what you have to understand is that culture, when it isn't culture to you, but simply the way that life works, is not so simple. When you're raised within a society that does things a certain way, it's not so easy to see things from the opposite perspective. It's also just not confusing to you, the same way it is to an outsider. I struggle with saving face because I was not raised in a society that employs it -- in other words, I don't understand it. I don't understand all of the signals involved that communicate things beneath the surface, which "come naturally" to Koreans. Which isn't to say that they come naturally at all, but simply that they have lived with them all of their lives, so it is a language that they speak fluently, natively, whereas to me, it's yet another foreign language that I am struggling to pick up, without any real awareness of context.

Of course this means that saving face, like speaking Korean, is just yet another area where I'm reduced to the status of a mumbling, idiotic child. It's another area where, in Korea, I am constantly embarrassing myself and struggling to keep up. But it's possibly more pronounced because, whereas it's easy enough to meet Korean people who have learned English fluently, it's not nearly as easy to meet Koreans who have learned Western style "honesty" or bluntness as fluently. While my co-teachers may have studied English for 20 years, my workplace doesn't speak Western Bluntness. I can't take Saving Face 101 down at the local university, and improve my understanding -- I certainly can't pick bits of it up from listening to pop songs on repeat. And, in a lot of my relationships with Koreans where saving face is most important, this very fact alone makes speaking openly about the practice extremely difficult. I have to rely exclusively on my ability to alter or suspend my own understanding of things and observe situations with extreme acuteness, as well as my relationships with Koreans who are in the process of (or have been before), themselves, learning the language in reverse.

In the meantime, it hits on extremely personal and deeply rooted parts of the pride and personal security of people on both sides. When I make a mistake in Korean, most good-hearted people will just laugh it off and give me a big thumps-up for simply trying. When I make a mistake in saving face, however, it doesn't go over quite as well. The exact same thing happens in reverse -- when someone makes a blunder that insults my sense of Western Bluntness, it's not so easy for me to overlook as when they cock up with their English, which obviously isn't an issue at all.

So. There you have it. The most difficult part of Korean culture for me. And I have a feeling it will be possibly for the duration of my time in East Asia. But I'm aware of it, which is half of the battle, and I'm working on it every day.

And now I'm out of questions. So if you have anymore, feel free to speak up!


Diana E.S. said...

Damn, Liz. Well said. There's more I want to say in response, but I'm heading out the door. Just wanted to say thanks for explaining this rather inexplicable element of K culture.

(Also, it exists in non-Asian countries. My dad nearly got arrested when he lived in Ecuador for confronting the man that was stealing their newspaper. In Ecuador, he committed the bigger crime by drawing attention to the theif's bad actions than the thief did in the first place. Holy cow!)

I'm no Picasso said...

Thanks Diana -- looking forward to hear what you have to say on the subject.

And I had no idea that it was an issue in other countries, as well. I'll have to look more into that.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot said...

So I can see two sides of the equation here. On the one hand, it can be extremely confusing to navigate the minefield of polite deceptions that occur and get to the root of what is really happening. On the other, if one is properly contrite, then it seems that no Korean will ever be able to contadict our own lies or excuses. How very interesting. This will be a perfect place to train my skills in diplomacy.

I'm no Picasso said...

The thing is, I struggle in the opposite direction. I have no desire to lie or misrepresent things to people in order to spare their feelings, because I'm a person who would rather have the truth, no matter how difficult it is to face, and I end up just applying my do-unto-others way of thinking across the board. I've had to struggle to adjust to the fact that what I prefer in a certain situation isn't at all what the person on the receiving end may want me to do. I'm about as hopeless with 'white lies' as a person can be.

To illustrate the point, the same Korean friend who came over that morning, and my foreign friend Smalltown and I were all out one night with a decent sized group. The group were milling over the idea of going on to another venue, when they got to me -- "No. I'm going home." The conversation came to a full stop and everyone burst out laughing. "Sorry," I said. "I'm American. I just say what I'm thinking."

Smalltown, who is Irish, then retorted: "That's not American at all -- that's just pure Liz."

Diana E.S. said...

And now for some mildly incoherent blatherings on the subject: I think a lot of the differences between cultures boil down not to having different emotions, but in having different proper ways to express them.

Example: love. In America, we show our love for a person by nurturing and respecting his independence. Americans in this respect are seen by Koreans as distant and cold because the Korean expression of love is to overwhelm the other person with intrusive "helpful" comments and ridiculous gestures. Same feeling--totally opposite ways to express it.

Diana E.S. said...

What saving face bumps up against is the concept of respect. In the West, the highest measure of respect to show a person is honesty. In fact, I think one of the reason Americans seem so friendly to other cultures is that they engage in many "face-saving" (can we alternately say relationship-preserving?) activities with strangers (holding the door for the man behind you, or telling your co-worker her blouse is pretty are some examples), but virtually none with family members and close friends. Those we hold in the highest esteem we show respect by being honest. Honesty is often in conflict with relationship-preserving actions. We Americans simply trust that our good friends will not be hurt by our bluntness because we respect them enough to tell them the truth. There is, however, some irony here in that from an outside perspective, we can often seem cruel to those close to us or we take close relationships for granted.

Min Gi, for example, went a little crazy when we stayed with my family this summer. He was just so shocked at how we spoke to each other. Actually, he tried to mimic it and at first was awkward and resulted in some minor spats between us until I figured out what he was doing (trying to express his love in the way he now realized I found familiar--teasing and similar things). I told him to knock it off and be himself because I want to marry HIM, not my family. He got the message.

Actually, there are some things about the relationship-preserving, face-saving culture that I love. People are more expressive of positive emotions within a family. Watching Korean Dads with their children is what made me realize I wanted to have children. Fathers in America keep a cool distance from their children, often expressing love in our culture's rigidly defined "masculine" ways like teasing, joking, or mocking. I didn't even know that emotional void existed in my own culture until I saw the alternative.

However, the honesty is the big thing. Before I married Min Gi, I brought this up many, many times. I explained it by saying that we show respect for each other by being honest, and that I want him to always be honest with me. Not "honest," but telling me the truth. After about 5 such conversations, he believed me and has been very straightforward with me since then (just today he confessed to smoking last night, even though he knew it would upset me). In return, I show him respect by being a hell of a lot more polite than I've been to any other lover in the past. We respect each others' cultures by trying to express our love in ways that the other finds soothing and fulfilling. It works for us.

In more casual relationships (friends and co-workers) I try to just let it go and examine it from intention (usually to be polite and kind, not to decieve intentionally), not my "objective" standards of truth and honesty (something that if I had done in college, I possibly would still be friends with a girl who lied a whole lot to me but for, in her own really twisted passive-aggressive way, honorable reasons). Actually, sometimes it helps to just think of the whole culture as trained to believe that passive-aggressiveness is the way to go. I have learned how to deal with passive-aggressive people as a teacher in the States, so I apply that here and in cases of "face" it works something like 95% of the time. Just think of the most passive aggressive person you know and try to do what he/she would in that situation (within reason; don't compromise your own ethics).

Hope some of that made sense. I need sleep!

I'm no Picasso said...

Diana -- thank you for the thoughtful and valuable commentary. It's nice to hear more from someone who would know a lot better than I would.

You've hit the nail right on the head with the respect = honesty in Western culture thing. You just reminded me of a conversation I had with the same Korean friend who helped me through the situation mentioned here, later on, when he was asking me more about Western style interaction, trying still to understand the other side.

Somehow he ended up bringing up work, and if I was having issues with saving face at work. I thought to myself for a moment and then answered that, actually, I hadn't really had any. He was confused -- why was it so hard in my personal life but not at work? What about with my co-teachers? Wasn't there trouble sometimes when I was so honest about things?

I thought some more. Well, I'm not that blunt with my co-teachers, though.


Because they're not my friends. At work, the situation is different -- you have to be more polite.


We took a moment of mutual puzzled silence, and then I think it clicked for both of us at the same time.

I'm more honest and blunt with the people I consider closest to me. That's why it bothers me so much when someone I consider to be a closer friend tells a 'white lie'. Because in my culture, that kind of behavior is reserved for someone you don't consider as being that close to you. Bluntness is a sign of affection in Western culture.

I got a little glimpse then at the other side of the equation, how our way of doing things can be quite confusing as well, watching him try to work it out. Your story with Min Gi helps me understand it even better, and the part about his awkward attempts at doing things "our" way makes me feel a lot better about the struggles we have going in the opposite direction.

Anonymous said...

Hello, I am Spanish and I just found your blog. I have been living in the US and I have problems to understand the culture, and it is fun how I get to understand some of them by reading yours in Korea. In Spain we will save face like you explain in Korea, and that was very difficult to understand when living in the US. When someone does not want to meet for a beer they just say: "No, I do not want to go."
What? you do not even make an excuse? you do not lie to me?
not lying to me was so disrespectful to me that it took me months to stop being mad.
I am sorry guys, but for a long time I was very scare of Americans. At the end I loved people being so straightforward, that gives you more freedom to suggest plans. Have you thing about it? if you know they would lie to you if they don't feel like acepting, you think twice before inviting someone because you will put them in the position to lie, and no one likes to lie, whatsoever.

I'm no Picasso said...

Anon -- Thank you so much for commenting. It's always really, really nice to hear from the other side on this stuff, and how you guys struggle with the emotions involved with this as well. It makes it easier to keep being patient and trying to figure it out, rather than just dismissing things as rude or inconsiderate, to remember that the other person is feeling the same things, and their intentions may be as gentle as mine are. Really interesting stuff.

And also, on the side of face saving, sometimes it's nice not to have things put so bluntly as Americans tend to put them. You understand what the person is trying to say, but to have them take the time to word it carefully and try to make you feel better about it, sometimes it just feels a lot nicer. More refined. It's just getting a handle on when what is happening that's hard.

If we keep working at it, I think we'll see more and more value in the opposite way of doing things.

Korean-American said...

For me, my reaction to another's saving face differs depending on the context and environment.

From the perspective of an American male living in US, it annoys me terribly to witness a close friend pussyfoot around, equivocate, or, as it were, tell "white lies" (though a blunt, "I'm sorry I called you out on a weekday, but I just met these chicks and am leaving with them right now so be safe and see you soon" would be a dick move by any cultural standard). When a friend rejects my invitation to come out, I prefer "Sorry bro, I gotta go in tomorrow at 10 and I'm tired as shit" to "Oh my god... ummm... jeez... well I think I can but I don't know right now because I have to run some errands and... okay, how about I'll call you in a bit when I find out whether I can? Most likely I will and I'll do my best but we'll see... so is that okay?" because there's something to be said about honesty.

However, my attitude does a 180 the minute I set foot in Korea. I believe that so much of 정 (I cannot translate this word, sorry) turns on sacrifice; the more significant the relationship, the greater the expectation of sacrifice. Many Koreans recognize the existence of and act in accordance with this dynamic. It is not something I am proud of but in Korea I expect close friends to come out when I call, even when they have reasons not to, because I am willing to do the same. And if the answer is always going to be a "No", I would appreciate a face saving moment, lest my feelings get hurt, because to say "No" in Korea is to say "You are not important enough," which is painful to bear. Choosing to be insecure in return for feeling important is many things negative (masochistic and a shit-shit trade-off, to begin with), but I quite like it when other like-minded folks play the same game. The solidarity is comforting.

** sad face emoticon **

Anonymous said...

Awesome story.

I'm a Korean-American who never lived in Korea; I speak Korean fairly well, am conservative in many ways, and obviously, I'm the offspring of Korean immigrants.

But this face-saving thing pisses me off aplenty and I've startled more than a few Korean-speaking immigrants (meaning, Koreans who never left ethnic enclaves here, often speaking limited English) as well as expatriates from Korea with my directness and bluntness.

One guy I know, who is nearly 40 and one of these small-outlook immigrants who lives in America but only wants to live in a Korean world, is married to an expatriate Korean woman. She told me once I'm too direct - she was polite about it, but at least, I understand where she was coming from. Still, I find this all too tiring. That I was raised in the NY area and am a straight shooter doesn't make it any easier.

I am sick and tired of how Koreans are so prone to dishonesty. I hate it with a passion.

Mr. Spock said...

I don't know if your idea of honesty = love is universally Western. Canadians are not that blunt for the most part, I'll tell you. If my mom's haircut looks terrible, I am not going to be 100% honest. What would it do but hurt her feelings? I tend to go by "if you have nothing nice to say, say nothing at all."

I'm no Picasso said...

I mean... being rude is being rude anywhere. But I don't know shit about Canada, so I'm curious: would you feel more at ease telling your mom her new haircut was shit or a stranger? I guess my thinking would be like, what do I care about a stranger anyway? They can do whatever they want with their hair. But if my mom has done something truly horrific, I wouldn't want her to walk around thinking it's great when really I think it's shit. I wouldn't say, "Hey Mom, your hair's shit!" I mean. I might. My mother and I are pretty close. But you know. Cluing her in. Speaking up. That kind of thing.

Which I guess is the difference. In saving face culture, it's kinder to let the person go on not knowing. In my culture (whatever 'my' culture is), it's kinder to gently let someone know.

Jono said...

Well. Migrating to Canada from Greece when I was 9 years old, I actually thought Canadians were way too polite and beat around the bush too much.

I sang at a school function and all my teachers gave me compliments. Then when I got home and watched the videotape, I was like: "Damn. I sound like shit. Why didn't anybody say 'good job, but you need practice' or something polite yet truthful."

So it's really not a Western vs. Eastern thing. 1) Canada is considered Western, yet people beat around the bush. 2) Greece is, arguably, Western, yet I still saw this contrast.

I was actually surprised to read your blog Liz. I found that nothing in the story was weird. LOL. I would probably make up a story if I was leaving early too. I'd never ditch a friend (no matter what gender, or age or job position or whatever) for some "blondes" or "brunettes" or what have you. If I really wanted to, I'd at least apologize and say I'd make it up.

I don't know. I think maybe it has to do with character. Do you ever have a problem being too blunt in the States? Or have you ever gotten into an awkward situation for not understanding someone's underlying intentions?

One last example. If a guy likes a girl in a bar, usually they will go and speak nicely to them and impress them (even if they are douches and don't give a shit about the girl). If they were blunt and just said "I want to f*** you" 95% of the time they'd get slapped. So beating around the bush, asking things indirectly, saving face etc. are all familiar concepts in Western culture. Maybe they are done in slightly different ways in Korea than in the States but I don't see much of a difference quite frankly.

I hope I didn't offend. LOL.