Snoozing and Solidarity: The Importance of Devotion in the Korean Workplace

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This is the second in a series of three posts looking at some of the starkest UK/Korea cultural differences I have encountered so far. It was sparked by a train of unfortunate events which led to my attending a memorial service for my boss’ wife wearing a floral tea dress which you can read about here.

When I lived in France, my local friends were horrified at UK working habits: we ate lunch at our desks, rather than disappearing to a restaurant for two hours and stumbling back after the requisite five courses, half-pack of Gauloises Blondes and small vat of wine! Our shops opened on Sundays and on Wednesday mornings! We voluntarily stayed in the office past five o’clock! The Brits had become – that nadir of French insults – ‘too American’. We did not have, or value, le temps de respirer – literally ‘the time to breathe.’ I was inclined to agree: Sunday trading restrictions and the 35-hour working week have always seemed to me to be infinitely sensible propositions, and having the time to just be – to think, to observe, to simply experience life without measuring the worth of my actions by their material gain – was undoubtedly one of the most enriching elements of my French life. Upon returning to England, I found the pace of life frenetic, and the emphasis on destination rather than journey – suddenly writ large – oppressive. Here in Korea, I often think fondly of my French friends and wonder what they would make of working life in a country where devotion to the work team is a value prized above all else, and office hours are the longest in the developed world.

It is impossible to overstate the importance that the concept of devotion plays in Korean working life. Even the English word ‘devotion’ doesn’t quite capture the essence of the attitude to work here, or the way in which that attitude manifests itself. For all that I wholeheartedly believe my French friends to have had a point in regard to UK office culture, the fact that the term ‘work-life balance’ exists and the emphasis we put on it should demonstrate a certain general consensus. This being that - specific sectors aside - work is a necessary evil to be endured between designated hours. As the average Brit sees it, maximum productivity during these hours (in a concentrated, Pret-sandwich-while-emailing kind of way) is a positive thing, in so far as it allows us to escape at the end of the day and enjoy the ‘life’ side of the equation. This is a classic example of the Western tendency (discussed in a previous post, here) to divide our lives into clearly distinct compartments. It also makes it perfectly possible not to care for, or even to actively dislike, one’s colleagues and still have something called a ‘productive working relationship’: we are trained to put personal differences aside for the sake of the task at hand.

This kind of mental gymnastics is entirely anathema in Korea. The idea of work-life balance does not exist quite simply because your work is your life: the notion of 'outside interests’ doesn’t quite translate here. The Korean sense of self is always conceived as part of a larger whole: you are part of a family, a school class or a work unit before you are an individual which makes acceptance by that group vital. It is therefore of paramount importance that you demonstrate a self-sacrificial attitude, working (or at least keeping up appearances of working) all hours for the good of the whole. It is very difficult for most Westerners to wrap their heads around the ideas that actual productivity, central to most of our working environments, comes way down the scale of priorities next to this. We find it unfathomable that hours spent at desk are the measure of professional worth even if those hours are spent online shopping, on Facebook or having a snooze. Seriously: sleeping at one’s desk is the norm for students and teachers alike at my school – it’s expected that you work yourself into the ground in service to your colleagues/studies and sleeping on the job is interpreted as a sign that you have passed out from sheer exhaustion. This gains you serious bonus points as a demonstration of that all-important devotion. Sick days are also unheard of – my co teacher took a Friday off to have surgery and was back at her desk the following Monday. Pale, in pain and having to be rushed to Casualty by Tuesday, yes, but back at her desk she was. This training in devotion to the group begins early: the spectacle of British parents keeping their children off school with the flu, much less complaining that a child has been sent in with it and therefore infected the rest of the class – would be utterly incomprehensible in Korea. Here, the kids are simply handed a face mask and a vial of stoicism, and told to get on with it.

The lack of division between what Westerners term ‘work’ and ‘life’ also means that the notion of a ‘professional’ and a ‘personal’ self is almost untranslatable. Strong personal relationships, or at least the appearance of them, are understood to be central to the survival of the group, hence the endless rounds of hui shiks and the insistence on getting absolutely blotto at them (drunkenness brings you closer: a point at which one could say British and Korean culture overlap. I think there is a distinction to be made here, but I’ll cover that in the next post).  Because of this, the British ‘professional working relationship’ in which the conscious choice is made only to interact with one facet of a person, is unimaginable in Korean culture.

In the UK, even for those of us who love our jobs there tends to be a clear division between 'work’ and 'life’. In fact, it is considered the height of unprofessionalism to allow the twain to meet: just as we entreat our loved ones not to bring their work home, we entreat our employees to leave their personal issues there. In Korea, this is unthinkable. Getting married? Expect to invite your whole office regardless of whether you are irritated by/have a long-running feud with/have never spoken to them. That said, if a member of a colleague’s family is ill, that colleague will continue to come to work (showing devotion) but the rest of the team will gather money to present to them for support. Equally, when the Principal’s wife passed away it was a matter of course for every member of school staff to pay their condolences and make a formal bow to her portrait at the memorial. This solidarity in times of need is one of the aspects of Korean culture I respect a great deal: much as I find the blurring of lines between professional and personal difficult (I am a product of my culture, after all) there are times when the benefits are clear. Watching the entire school offer their unreserved support to a grieving family was one of those times, as was being a part of the process.

In the final post of this mini-series, I’ll look at how I came to be part of it in the least appropriate attire possible, but in the meantime do let me know what you think and – if you are a fellow expat – how you have handled the transition to Korean working life. Comments welcome as always!
Wanderings and Ramblings of an ESL teacher currently based in a tiny mountain town near the North Korean border.


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