How To: Get Along With Your Korean Coworkers

Before I write a single word, I want to preface this with my awareness that my advice is based only on my own experience- I am not, by a long shot, the expert on cross-cultural office relations. However, I do get along quite well with everyone in my office, so if that's proof enough for you, please read on!

Step 1: Eat delicious food together.

If you've spent any time at all on, you've probably run across plenty of posts about strained NET/CT relationships, chilly behavior of Korean teachers toward foreign teachers in the office, and all manner of difficulties arising out of everything from deep-seated cultural differences to simple miscommunication.

Seeing as I'm lucky enough to consider many of my coworkers (not just coteachers) to be friends, here are my personal tips for getting along with coworkers in Korean public school. As I've never worked in a hagwon, I'm can't say if the same rules apply.

note: this post is targeted more toward coworkers other than coteachers. I'll write a post about getting along with your coteachers next!

1. Your culture, their culture: know the difference!

So here you are, settling into your new job in lovely South Korea. You came from the US, from Ireland, from South Africa, Australia, wherever. Now, my first advice, and something that I admittedly tend to harp on about, is this: South Korea is not your native country. It's not the US, or Ireland, or South Africa, or even Australia. Really. I promise. The sooner you remember this, the happier you and everyone around you will be.

Not to rag on again, but the "What Do You Refuse To Do?" thread just illustrates my point so well, I can't avoid mentioning it. Some refusals are reasonable, such as "wear a surgical mask [while sick]" or "eat dog" or even "care about Dokdo." Some complaints, on the other hand, ramp up my crankiness level at a worrying rate. Refusals include "sitting on the floor in restaurants," "learning Korean," going to work dinners, and in another post that I can't find at this moment, a poster complained about students constantly greeting him in the hall and having to respond. Oh the horror. Friendliness. How will you ever survive?

As The Korean wrote in a post about ESL teachers in Korea:

Even when ESL teachers come to Korea with best intentions, they often come strikingly uneducated about Korean history and culture. Korea is a unique place; no other country in the world brought itself out of utter poverty to a leading economic power within a few decades while surviving two devastating wars under two different countries' occupation. Many things about Korea require a radically different mindset from any other country’s mindset to understand properly – which is really what being exposed to a different culture is all about.

This is exactly the point I am constantly trying to make. There is an arrogance that comes with speaking the global lingua franca. In the majority of the world, speaking English will be enough to get by on. Sure, that's fine if you're just vacationing (though personally I believe that even tourists should learn basic greetings in the native language), but living/work and visiting for a week or two are entirely different animals. In the one case, you're merely on the outside looking in- take a few pictures, try some food, then go home. However, living and working in a foreign country entails quite a lot more, as I like to call it, cultural I need to work on that one.

Guys am I Korean enough yet??

To circle back around to my point, try to understand the culture you're in. Greet your coworkers in the morning, and when you see them in the hall. Do a bit of research, try to understand where they're coming from. Before you take offense at a comment or action, stop and consider the intention. Plenty of things that would be considered incredibly rude in the US are completely normal in Korea; comments about physical appearance/weight come to mind first. This is not to say that explaining to someone that, in your own country, such and such thing is not done/done differently is a no go. Just remember, before you get all butthurt and rant your feelings on waygook, that not everyone has the same background as you.

On a related note...

2. Learn Korean!

I cannot stress enough how important this is. The amount you want to learn is up to you, but please, please, for the love of...something, learn some Korean.

Maybe it's just greetings. You'd be surprised how far a couple of 안녕하세요's will get you (for the as-of-yet uneducated, 'annyeonghaseyo basically means hello). Kick it up a notch with 잘 먹어습니다 (enjoy your meal) and 반갑습니다 (pleased to meet you) and you'll be in good graces for the rest of eternity, barring some horrible social faux pas.

Also, hangul (the Korean alphabet), is actually super easy to learn. I know, I know, it looks complicated and scary, but it's actually (according to some) one of the most linguistically perfect alphabets in the world. The shapes of the characters are modeled after the shape of your mouth when you say them! Maybe that's only exciting to a linguistics nerd like me, but I stand by my excitement. It's certainly very logical, once you get the hang of it, and believe me, being able to read the menu in a restaurant on the names of bus stops on a map is the most wonderful feeling.

The secrets of this manuscript could be yours for the taking!

It's also pretty fun to buck foreigner stereotypes. If I had a nickel for every time someone responded to my basic Korean with "Omg your Korean is so good! Most foreigners never learn Korean. It's so hard/they're lazy/etc", I could build my own school out of nickels! Maybe. Probably not. My Korean is not good enough to warrant this response, believe me, but it feels good all the same.

Now, learning even the most basic Korean phrases will help with my next piece of advice, which is...

3. Try to Be Involved

If you've read anything about having a job in Korea, it's likely that you've come across the famed work dinners, or 회식. These gatherings usually involve lots of food, drink, and most importantly, a relaxation of social boundaries and a chance to bond outside of the office environment.

Bulgogi marinated in peach sauce, all on the company card.
It may sound like a pain, having to attend a work event outside of normal hours that you don't get paid for, but unless your coworkers are actually straight up mean to you, these things can be pretty fun. Even if you don't drink, it's a great chance to talk to different people and see a more relaxed side of the people you share a stuffy office with every day. Plus, free food.

Beyond the company dinners, always offer to help out with events. Odds are, you'll be assured that no, they don't need any help, but the mere fact that you offered means a lot. For instance, at the end of the school year, right around Christmas, there was a big school festival, with everything from an art show to various dance and music performances by students and teachers. I'd mentioned earlier in the year that I played the violin, but thought nothing of that fact until the music teacher approached me one day with the idea of us playing a duet at the festival. I was flattered, and thanks to his charming smile, I agreed.

The whole experience was really great. Even though the ladies in my office refused to let me help them with the setup, possibly because explaining what needed to be done to the clumsy foreigner was more trouble than it was worth, I still had something that drew me in to the spirit of the event. We practiced constantly, well aware that we had an audience of roughly 900 bored middle school students to impress. Despite my fears, the whole thing went off without a hitch, and 5 months later people still bring up my performance in conversation at lunch.

Anyways, that whole long ramble was just to illustrate my point; get involved! It won't suck, I promise! In fact, it usually ends up being really fun, even if you don't always know exactly what you're agreeing to participate in.

4. Go the extra mile

My explanations are getting shorter as my list gets longer. This one is pretty basic, and probably applies to jobs in any country, but I wanted my list to have 5 points, don't judge me.

If you're working in public school, I'm going to assume you're on a contract like me, which means that technically you only have to be in school from 8:30-4:30, and anything extra is overtime. "That's great!" you think, right? That means I can leave at 4:30 every day and have glorious long evenings all to myself.

Technically, this is true. However, most of your coworkers are likely going to be coming in earlier and/or staying later (whether or not this is a good practice is a debate for another time), and while I don't have any evidence to back this up, I imagine that seeing the young foreigner constantly arriving last and leaving first would not sit well.

So, my advice? Come in early once in a while. Stay a little late on days when you have a bit more to do, organize your classroom, chat over a cup of coffee with the person you sit next to, anything that strikes your fancy. If you're magically on top of your lesson plans, bring your Korean homework and do it at work!

I know this is probably controversial, since this is technically working overtime without getting paid for overtime, but let's be honest, will the odd half hour once or twice a week really kill you?

This also applies to helping out with stuff beyond teaching your classes. I've helped the IT guy understand difficult metaphors in Jason Mraz songs. I once read a speech aloud for a teacher's husband while he recorded me, so he could practice his English pronunciation before a big speech at his company. On a memorable day during Winter break, I teamed up with my office mates to rearrange and clean our entire office, much to the surprise of everyone who came in the next day.

5. Bring Food

Look, this one is really easy. Everyone likes food. Except people on diets maybe? But I'm not counting them because they secretly like food, they're just pretending they don't for the sake of health or beauty whatever. There's a rumor that my office is cursed; stay here long, and you're bound to gain weight, thanks to all the snacks everyone brings in.

The irresistible charm of eggplants.
Guaranteed to make you fat: baked sweet potatoes and rice cakes.
Seeing as I neither own a farm nor have a real kitchen, I usually go for an easier route. Seasonal fruit is always a safe bet. When mandarin oranges were cheap, I would grab a bag of those once a week or so, mostly out of a selfish desire to eat lots of tiny oranges, but it also meant that I had an office of people beholden to me for my generous citrusy benevolence. Honestly, you'd be amazed how far a small gesture can get you.

Guess which one is me?

So there they are, my 5 suggestions for getting along happily with your Korean coworkers. As I said before, I'm not a cultural expert, an expert on how to make friends, an expert on Korean schools...can you see a trend?

What I do know is that I consider many of my fellow teachers to be friends, and some even feel like family, so I must be doing something right.

Do you work in a Korean school? Any more tips for happy office relations? Think my advice is dumb? I'd love to hear from you in the comments~!

Teacher Pretty
Middle school ESL teacher, lover of pink, eater of kimchi, addicted to Etude House, expert procrastinator, meeter of 2-dimensionial popstars: Ana. That's me.

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