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Exploring Communication Differences in the Urban Jungle of Korea (2009 Essay Contest)
Exploring Communication Differences in the Urban Jungle of Korea (2009 Essay Contest)
  Date: 2009-11-24 01:28     View: 2449  



Exploring Communication Differences in the Urban Jungle of Korea


Regina Marie Schneider

Choji Elementary School(Gyeonggi

  There was once a man who was exploring the rainforests with a native guide.  The guide knew the forest very well and was able to navigate easily through the tall trees without getting lost or harmed by the wild creatures around him.  The guidewas an unkempt man not interested in self grooming and polite ways.  The guide was a leader in his profession and was well educated.  His culture was very practical and people often spoke to each other briskly which sometimes appeared curt for speed and safety reasons.  He could speak to the explorer’s language but he did not bother with the politeness that the explorer was used to, as this was not the custom of his culture.

The explorer was in search of something no one had ever discovered before and he needed the guide’s help.  He wished to take back a treasure to his homeland that was of more value than any other discovery this decade.  He was a charming well educated man who was usually kind and polite. He was eager and well prepared. He had learned many things about the rainforest and the creatures that inhabited it.  He learned about the behavior of the indigenous people. He knew they were very practical, logical, and how they formed bond with each other.  He learned the proper technique to climb a rubber tree and use the mountains as landmarks.  He learned which plants and bugs were safe to eat and which would kill him.  He had a vast knowledge of many things both rustic and scientific.

One day while traveling through the forest the guide,who had been leading him for several days, asked him why he was so foolish to shave his face every morning.  The explorer thought for a moment and answered him very frankly "It is not foolish, I want to look refined, I am a man of a certain social standing and I must look my best."  The guide and the explorer, both finding this conversation to be a bit odd continued in their own efforts to get ready for the day’s journey.  They traveled for several more days and each day the guide asked the same question, and receiving the same answer.  Each day the guide was persistent in making a more critical comment about the explorer’s foolishness.  After several days the explorer became sensitive about the issue andbegan to speak less and less to the guide. He was offended that his shaving was considered foolish by a man he had began to think of as a grimy savage, a man who never shaved and bathedonly once a week. He also began to walk more briskly and less carefully to create physical space between himself and the guide.

One day while they were hiking through a ravine a strong rain began to pour down on them. The well prepared pair made changes in their course and attire to accommodate for the down pour.  Then something unexpected happened and they both fell into the raging river below.  The guide and the explorer both knew what to do in the river so they swam hard to get out of the water.  Halfway to the bank the explorer started to slow down.  The guide who was several feet away from him tried to help, but was unable to fight the current of the river. The explorer became sleepy and drowned.  The guide was a failure in his task give the explorer safe passage and the explorer was dead.

So, why did the explorer die?  Well,in this particular part of the rainforest there was a poisonous plant that caused people to fall asleep when the pollen entered their blood system. When the rain fell it washed the pollen into the river.  The explorer covered his body to prevent injury so he had no open wounds except for the nicks he would accidentally made on his chin or neck with his razor while shaving in the jungle.  When he fell in the river the small nicks allowed the poison into his system and he became sleepy. 

The story of this explorer and his guide is similar to the story of many Korean teachers and their western native English speaking co-teachers.  It is important to realize however, each person is part explorer and part guide.  No matter how prepared a person is fora foreign culture until they actually experience the culture it is impossible to know what obstacles one will face. Good communication is an important skill to possess when you are faced with numerous life adjustments and cultural obstacles.Most Koreans have a cultural love for others called Jeong that they are eager to give but poor communication skill can hamper the freeness one is awarded Jeong .  The aim of this essay is to share ten communication rules I try to keep in mind as I journey through the urban jungle of Korea.  By further analyzing the explorer’s and the guide’s interaction in the story one can see it is a model to better understanding the rules. 

Rule number one is: Admit to yourself and your co-teachers you will have communication break downs from time to time. Although this seems like a no brainer, it is often unexpectedwhen difficulties arise.  Also as you adjust to the ongoing changes you will experience while adapting to a different culture, you may find rituals, customs, and attitudes bizarre.  Like the situation with the guide and the explorer, they noticed differences in grooming practices both found the other odd but communication breakdown started to develop.  One could say it is interesting how something as minor as shaving could cause a communication breakdown. Sometimes communicating one word differently can bring a whole new meaning to a conversation.  The guide used the word foolishin the story and the explorer took offense to being call a fool. Consider what might have happened if he had chosen synonym such as careless, irrational, or reckless.  The English language is packed with synonyms although the meaning is the same or quite similar in its purest form as native speakers we have grown accustom to the perceived meaning of some words.  Prepare, obligation, and burden are some examples of words with implied connotations.

A native English speaker might say "I prepared these cookies for you." With an implied meaning that I mixed flour, milk, sugar, and butter together using my top secret old family recipe, baked them,and brought them to you to show I care.  However the same sentence spoken by a Korean may mean I went to the store and purchased some cookies for you because I care. There is an assumed context with the word prepare that as native English speakers might bring to every conversation however our Korean co-teachers and friends don’t always speak with the same assumed context.  In this example of cookies, no one should care if they are handmade or store bought the sentiment is the same, I appreciate you. However, the assumed context of the word prepare is completely different and changes the sentence’s meaning. 

Using this same example let’s say your Korean co-teacher asks you "Please prepare a worksheet for our next class. They will arrive in 20 minutes."  A native speaker may hurry and generate a worksheet, freak out, or think "This is impossible!"With no more communication these assumed meanings can cause a real communication problem.  But if you admit that this seems unreasonable and it is possible that there is a communication breakdown you can ask for further help and avoid a problem.  You may find that really all you need to do is get the worksheet from the office and place that appropriate number of sheets on each group’s table. The first task most people may find unreasonable but the second is simply a housekeeping task that one might have done anyway. The direct translation of preparein the Korean language has several meanings such as assemble, gather, and put together.It is easy to see how a simple word decision can cause chaos.

The second rule is less obvious to the offender because it tends to be almost involuntary in most cultures. Rule number two is: Learn to know what nonverbal messages you are sending.  Nonverbal cues are given in most cultures from birth they can be gestures, facial expressions, and body positions. The explorer probably never noticed he was angry with his guide so he was making their physical distance greater. It is common for two people who are less fond of each other to create more distance between them than two friendly people.  Had the explorer been closer to his guide he may have been saved.

  In cultures such as the Korean culture even small children learn not to make large expressionsof sadness or disappointment when they are told something displeasing.  This act of controlling one’s expression can be menacing to cultures such as Americans who use facial expressions as evaluation tools and action cues in work and social situations.  As an American I usually felt free to express my dissatisfaction on my face but the golden rule "Is if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all."Well it has been my experience the rule is different in Korean culture instead of only controlling what is said Koreans often control their nonverbal communication as well. So the same rule for Korea may be written something like this: "If you expression would cause another person to feel nervous or uncomfortable don’t make it and whatever you do don’t tell anyone you are dissatisfied, at least not in public."  This can be very difficult because nonverbal communication is so engrained in our way of being we often don’t realize we used them until after the nonverbal act.  Being aware of this difference in culture, although we may not be able to control the cues, will help us understand the reactions that arise from them.

The explorer was outraged by the guide’s harsh insults about his shaving.  It never occurred to the explorer that the intent of the guide was warning him rather than insulting him.  This is a good example of rule number 3: Consider impact of your actions and words without bias of your intent.   If the impact is different than your intent it is a clue that you have not communicated yourpoint.  When you communicate information or needs to your co-teacher it is easy to blame them for their lack of action or unwillingness to assist you. But before you start spreading the blame, consider if they did really understand your intent was for them to take action.  The guide was responsible for the safety of the explorer.  The guide had a job to do, just as we as teachers have jobs to do.  It was the guide’s responsibility to communicate to the explorer he needed to protect his face and it was dangerous for him to cut himself every morning shaving.  He only tried one way to communicate without considering the impact of that method. He was biased by his intent, and did not realize the reason for the impact of his words.  Simply put he felt the explorer was being sensitive and he stopped doing his job because of a lack of understanding.  Remember the guide’s culture did not value the same level of politeness as the explorer expected in his own. What would have happened if someone would have asked the explorer what he was being told?  If a mediator would have approached the explorer and said "Do you understand what the guide is telling you?"The explorer would have said "Yes."  But there is more to communication than understanding the words.  Therefore, although you or your teacher might understand the words of the conversation it does not always mean you both understand the impact and intentof what is being said.  It is our duty as good communicators to make sure the intent and the impact or our communications are the same.

In two of the situations we have explored in this essay the individuals could have benefited from asking one of the smallest questions in the English language. That question is the heart of rule number 4: Take time to ask why; you may not know as much as you think! Our explorer could have saved his own life by simply asking the guide. "Why are you so critical of my shaving habit of shaving?"In addition if the teacher would have asked her co-teacher why she hadn’t prepared the worksheet in advance she would have found out the request was simply to distribute them to the students’ desks.

Rule number 5 is: Be resilient and persistent but not obtuse.  The guide in the story was persistent he commented each day that the explorer was shaving foolish, and he was resilient in that he worked hard each day to safely travel through the jungle with his companion in spite of the uncomfortable silence. However the guide in his continuing to communicate the wrong sentimentand get the wrong reaction he was obtuse.  Had he learned from his former failures to create the correct impact he would have realized that he need to choose a different way to communicate or rephrase his point.  He may have learned that he was talking to the explorer while he was shaving which created a break in the explorer’s concentration thus causing the cuts, or many other things about the situation.  His obtuse reaction caused a communication failure and cost the explorer his life.    

In analyzing the timing of the guide’s decision to talk to the explorer while he was shaving we can easily see the importance of6th rule: Use time and timing to your advantage.  In many cases it is best to manage communication problems when they occur.  If you have a communication impasse it is best to resolve it before any action is made based on a failed communication.  But sometime time is needed to consider the other person’s point of view and even occasionally to look up words that didn’t make sense, especially in secondlanguage situations there can be a delay and a process time to both understand the impact of what is said and to re-evaluate the selected phrasing.  When establishing ground rules with co-teachers giving time to process information is vital.  If possible, this may seem silly, but if you have needs that seem to be difficult to communicate try saying what you mean in writing.  It is a valuable tool during those processing times. Following up a conversation in writing with something as simple as an instant message or as elaborate as an essay, can create a clear positive ending to an otherwise unclear or confusing conversation.  It allows the reader to see your point of view without having to think quickly or feel pressure to respond.  Time also gives both parties a chance to get in a good mindset to manage the communication difficulty.  Imagine how the journey ofthe explorer and the guide might have changed if one of the pair would have elected to ask the other to clarify the conversation during one of the many happy unrelated hours they spent hiking in the jungle.

The explorer and the guide forgot the seventh communication rule in when they started devalue their companion and speaking less and less to each other.  Rule seven is: Never forget you are on a team. Teams work in many ways but remembering that one day you may need your teammate is key to keeping a cohesive group.  It is easy when teaching your native language to forget that there are many things like culture and language that you do not understand.  You may not always realize that the differences in your team can make it stronger. By valuing the differences and remembering that as part of a team you have to depend on others for their help you will finds to be stronger than you ever imagined.  The complimenting nature of a multicultural team can be difficult to handle sometimes.  Through a strong team oriented attitude and good communication habits you will find life in Korea much easier. 

Rule eight is not something we often think about until there is a misunderstanding involving it. Then we find ourselves in trouble.  The eighth rule is: Understand trust in different cultures is different. When I first arrived in Korea I was with a man in the parking garage and I saw him push a parked car about one meter out of his way so he could be free to pull his car out.  Appalled and new I said "You can’t do that!  You might set off the alarm or get beat up!"He looked at me with an expression that said you silly person whatever do you mean it is fine.  I realized then from his nonverbal cue I was no longer in America. It took several months to understand that in Koreanpeople are far more trusting in matters of personal property, personal space, and intent to be good, than I was used to in my home country.  I grew up protecting myself from all the evils of the world but attitude of not trusting others is really foreign to most Koreans.  Since I have been in Korea; I have been handed babies on the subway, I have left my jacket on a chair while I danced, and I have signed things that have been translated to me to the best of their ability without worry of being harmed.  These things in The United States would be unheard of, but they are common place in Korea.  I am not saying that the average amount of caution is not important but being aware that one’s social normal amount of distrust in Korea can be seen as insulting and strange. It can cause discomfort and returned distrust, and with distrust comes communication breakdowns.


 The ninth rule is: Be prepared for the unexpected. It is demonstrated in the story by the pair of journey men having rain gear, vast knowledge,and an alternate route. They could have been more prepared by having life jackets and good communication habits.  It is important for co-teachers to have communication life jackets, too.  Communication life jackets in multicultural interactions canbe simple pre-established cues that you talk about with your co-teacher that indicate a number of things. Some examples are if you need time to process the information you have received you can make a time out sign or possibly you need to start over the conversation with a clean slate maybe you make an eraser symbol and say do over.  Establishing these cues is a great precaution to prevent any misunderstandings.  It is always best to talk about conflict before it occurs; it shows you respect your relationship enough to think of all the things that could happen.  It also allows you a way to help your co-teachers feel comfortable in addressing concerns they may have with you.  It is also important to follow up after any trouble you might have and figure out how to prevent future issues. 


Our last and final rule is: Use cultural differences as reasons not excuses. If the explorer had began to follow the practices of the guide and just let his beard grow, instead of trying to stand out as the clean cut guy. He be he may still be alive today. He allowed his own cultural ideologies as an excuse for his behavior instead of reason for his actions.  Just because a person is in another culture doesn’t mean they get to say I am different so it excuse my behavior.  Traditionally foreigners to most cultures are rewarded opportunities to show their ignorance to the expected social norms.  In Korea because of Jeong cultural mistakes are usually handled with great care and sensitivity to your feelings. When you choose to livein a new culture you are taking on more than just the responsibilities in your contact, so keep this in mind the next time someone tries to correct your behavior. 

It is a huge adjustment to get used to cultural changes.  For example I felt that it was very hard to get used to people fixing the way I looked by adjusting my collar or hair, suggesting or pointing out that I needed to lose a few pounds, showing concern when my face got red when I was hot, and asking me it they could airbrush my photos to make me prettier.  In Korea image is far more important than in my culture so these things made me offended at first but now I realize they are just ways Koreans help each other.  Another example is getting used to being pushed in public places. It made me nervous the first several times it happened I checked to see if my pockets had been picked and if I had all my bags. Now I just realize it is normal for Koreans to have far less personal space than in my culture.  It is really rewarding to find out how much you learn about your own culture by interacting with another.  After some time in Korea I have realized that it is as important for me to fit in with the ways of my friends and co-workers.  It is sometimes not easy to lose the comforts of your own culture, but the experiences it will afford you will far outweigh the initial discomfort.

 As you can see as with any adventure there are advantages and disadvantages.  I hope by following these ten rules you willfind the process of adapting to Korean culture as rewarding as I have.  Communication in every culture is the most effective way to make the most of your relationships.  It is difficult to be a perfect communicator. Striving to do your best will make your teaching experience and other relationships more positive.  The Korean people can be great guides to you in your urban jungle adventure. Just remember to be a an explorer with good communication habits and I guarantee you will return home with a treasure in you thatyou, your family, and your friends have never witnessed before.  You will change in ways you never expected and Korea will mark your heart for life as it has mine.  I wish all who read this will find as much treasure I have found in Korea.

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