Friday, August 26, 2011
2011 Korea Summer Fellows - Working In Korea
One of the most interesting learning experiences I’ve had has been working at a major think tank here in Seoul for the summer. As one might guess, the working environment as well as professional business culture in East Asia is world’s apart from what most of us are used to in the United States. There is more than enough room for miscommunication, misunderstandings, and frustration. A good deal of my experience was no different! Korean culture in general was no great mystery to me, but I was surprised to find how differently things really work. However, I slowly became aware of the ins and outs of what was expected of me as I asked multitudes of questions and learned when and to whom I could ask them.
Korean culture in general is very hierarchical and male-dominated, with one’s status and position depending more upon family background and the name brand value of your university than work ethic, ability or intellect. As the old adage goes, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” While I’ve seen this to be true to a great degree in Washington, D.C., it seems to ring even truer here. Nearly all of the senior researchers and administrators at my workplace had incredibly interesting family histories and were tied to some of the most powerful and influential people in Korea. These are the people that run things in Seoul. While we see some degree of this from time to time in the U.S. such as in the Kennedy, Clinton and Bush families, it seems to be much more long-lasting, tight-knit, and intensive in Korea.
When I began working at this think tank, I was struck by the large array of titles I was expected to memorize. From President, to Manager, to Researcher, to I don’t even know what, anyone with any amount of authority had their own title (in Korean, of course), and they were usually addressed by the title only, even if they weren’t present! If I was talking about one of the senior staffers with a group of fellow interns, they would only talk about the person using their official title. In this structure of titles, authority and workload trickled down directly. Mid-level managers seemed quick to delegate the tasks given to them to a group beneath them, and I’m pretty sure that’s what happened above them and resulted in them being “given” the task in the first place. To me, it all looked very hectic and disjointed, with not a lot of communication going around. There were no clear directions or channels for information sharing. Someone gives you a job, you ask as few questions as possible, and you just do it. I seldom felt as if my suggestions or comments would have been welcome or considered valid.
Another thing I found curious was how workloads came in unpredictable waves and never from the same authority. There would be times when we would have an incredible amount of work, and then nothing for days. However, when we didn’t have anyone delegating work to us, my fellow interns encouraged me to pretend to be working. I ask them why, and whether or not we should go to offer our help to our immediate superiors. I was firmly told, “No! If we tell them we aren’t working or don’t have any work, then they will scold us and ask us why.” I scratched my head and followed suit. It got stranger one time when around 6:30 in the evening I found a group of interns sort of hiding in an office. They were waiting anxiously for the President to leave so they could then go home. They didn’t dare run the risk of him finding out that they had either left to go home before him, as that would mean they didn’t have enough work or weren’t working hard enough.
One of my more awkward experiences was when I was scolded for having my hands in my pockets during a conference. During one of the major conferences that we held during the summer, I was handling a microphone for the Q&A session. Apparently, at one point I had put a hand in my pocket. After the session was over, I was immediately taken aside and told that that was extremely disrespectful as it showed carelessness or a lack of attentiveness. “Interesting”…I thought.
While I can’t say I personally enjoyed every moment of working within the Korean system, I can honestly say that I was thrilled with the ever-present awareness I had that I was learning and experiencing much. I now have a much greater appreciation for the brain-wracking work that diplomats do. It is easy to imagine how a lot of hard work could be undone with the slip-up of a misplaced word, expression, or look. I can now see how there is tremendous value in purposing to take the extra step to ensure that your counterpart fully understands you, why you do something, and even why you have your particular line of thinking supporting what you do. These are not givens or easily guessable when dealing across cultures – especially when the two are literally on opposite sides of the globe.
Caleb R. Dependahl
Double B.A. Asian Studies and Chinese Language & Literature 2012,
Sigur Center 2011 Korean Language Fellow, Sogang University, South Korea