The Necessity of Lying in Korea

Picture by  Stepher Uhlmann (

One of my favourite writers and speakers currently is the neuro-scientist and philosopher Sam Harris.  In his most recent book, "Lying" his sets-out his case that the world, and indeed our individual lives, would be a much better if we dispensed with the fibs and were just honest in almost every situation.  He gives some examples of when lying might be necessary, but they mainly involve situations that could reseult in violence and therefore lying then becomes a means of self-defense (I will let you imagine some scenarios).

I personally agree with him, we would undoubtedly be better-off if we could all be more honest with each other.  However, I have noticed how difficult it is to meet his suggested challenge of consciously making a point not to lie (even the tiny ones) for a whole week - to see how often we might do it - while living in Korea.

In a society with Confucian values, elders are to be respected at all costs and I do think this puts extra pressure on the ability to be honest; sometimes honesty actually feels disrespectful and when the clashing values of two different cultures go at each other head-on this can cause some significant difficulties which may necessitate lying.  Even without cultural differences Koreans appear to lie to each other surprisingly regularly, especially when it comes to their family, which has shocked me a little.  Since day one, I have always disliked respect culture because of this necessity to lie.  It is not a measure of true respect that one needs to lie to people and especially family, I think it shows the opposite and the behaviour is more motivated by social pressure and fear.  In this confusion between fear and respect, South Korean culture makes the same mistake as the regime in North Korea.

The times I am regularly tempted to dish-out a few porky pies occur in two situations in Korea, at work and with my wife's family and I am going to give a few examples of dilemmas that have cropped-up from time to time.

When it comes to my in-laws, my wife tends to do the lying for me, partly because I am exquisitely uncomfortable with it and also because my Korean is not quite up to it.  One, rather massive fib we told my in-laws occurred a couple of years ago during my winter vacation from work.  There was only a small window my school allowed me to get away for a few weeks and I was thinking about a trip to Indonesia.  The only time I could get away, however, clashed with the Korean New Year holiday (Seollal).  My wife told me that her parents would never allow me go away at this time and that I should be with the family; my response was to say, "Well, I am not asking them, I will go if I want to, period."  Knowing that this would be a problem (my poor wife is often stuck in the middle in cultural problems such as this), my wife told her parents that I was going home to visit my family in England.  With the tensions that are often experienced and expected between the parents of married couples in Korea and the importance of family, they would not disapprove of this. 

To me, this seemed a bit immoral, I would have rather stood-up to them, apologised, and ultimately tried to explain how important travel and new experiences were to me and my freedom to make my own choices.  On good authority, however, I have been told many times that such a show of honesty would have been a big mistake if I valued my marriage.

These sorts of situations occur quite a lot; I have often got last minute requests to join my parents in-law for drinks with their friends - on a couple of occasions just as I was preparing to go to bed.  I simply refuse, which gives my wife headaches, but again she lies and says I am sick or I have an English class with someone or some other work to do.  I have to say, I have become more comfortable with doing this as time goes by.

Of course one of the tricky things with all this lying is the potential to slip-up at a later date because you have to remember all the lies you've told (as Sam Harris mentions in his book).  Even this aspect of lying is something I find completely different in Korea to living in England.  I find in England, people really are more interested in the truth, and especially parents, but in Korea not so much.  I believe the showing of respect holds greater importance.  This all means I rarely, if ever, get tested on the lies my wife and I have told.  In the Indonesian example, I visited there in January and February and came back with a markedly different skin tone, with tan lines where I had worn sunglasses.  Now, it could be that my in-laws were just ignorant of English weather in January and February, but they never remarked on this rather telling sign.

"He who is not sure of his memory should not undertake the trade of lying" - Montaigne

In fact, they never test me or my wife, ever.  I suspect they know, at least sometimes, when my wife lies to them to avoid conflict in such cases, but I am convinced that they don't really care.  The above quote is simply not relevant to me.  Goldfish can get away with lying in most situations in South Korea.

When it comes to my job, I have also had circumstances where being honest has become incredibly difficult.  Duty and being part of the group are very important factors in Korean culture and this holds particular relevance at work.  One of my personal bug-bears with Korean culture is the forced participation and enjoyment of workplace functions and activities.  I think it is particularly troublesome for women, but I have found it rubs me up the wrong way also.  Obligatory attendance at staff dinners and outings (and the forced drinking that results) are things that I am sure many Koreans hate about their culture, especially as they have to pay for them.  On paper they are not mandatory, but everyone knows the consequences for not joining in, which include ostracism at work, a generally harder time at work, and even bullying and the loss of a job or promotion opportunities.  The whole thing is one huge mess of dishonesty; younger, lower-ranked workers never want to participate, yet say they do and all the older, higher-ranked workers know the younger ones don't want to join them, but make them do it anyway.  They are lies the culture necessitates and that everyone accepts.

A special case of this occurred with me at around the time leading-up to my school's yearly festival, often quite a big deal in Korea.  It was the time of Gangnam Style's height of popularity and so it was decided that some of the younger teachers would do a Gangnam Style dance routine as a performance.  Most of the younger Korean teachers had been practicing for about 3 weeks before I was finally asked if I wanted to join in.  After replying that it wasn't really my cup of tea in as polite a manner as I could, several times, I was cajoled into going to a practice session.  The reality of it was they were demanding that I'd be in the centre of the performance and practice "diligently" (as they like to say) outside of my school hours to get up to speed with the rest of them.  The routine was also devilishly complicated for a slightly reserved Englishman with two left feet.  On top of it all, I had really grown a special hatred for that song because of the Korean obsession with it at the time and the amount it had been played.

Needless to say then, I refused to join in with the rest of them and no matter how many times I said this, "no" was simply not an answer they were willing to accept.  I was beginning to think I should have lied, like I had a bad knee or something, I think I would have only needed to say this once and then they would've eased-off and I would have heard nothing more about it.  Instead, though, I was hounded and told in the end that it was my obligation to do it.  With my heckles raised at this point, I tried very hard not to get angry and calmly disagreed.  I eventually had to sneak out of the school when they were not looking to get out of one more practice session, which they were going to physically drag me into doing.  I actually had to craftily tip-toe my way out of the door, can you believe it, no honesty was going to get me out of this mess.

The result of this was the cold shoulder treatment for a month or so and the implicit suggestion that they might not renew my contract for the next year.  If I had lied, my life would have been a hell of a lot easier and they would have liked me more.

On a smaller and more regular scale, one of the teachers I truly like at my school often takes me out for lunch every week.  While I appreciate this, I become a little uncomfortable because he always pays and I am saving for emigrating to Australia, so I cannot return the favour.  He is still happy to pay, but I really feel as though I am in his debt.  I also really enjoy the lunches at my school and this doesn't eat-up my entire lunchtime, like it does when I go out for lunch with him.  I wish we could just have lunch together in the school canteen.  In Korean culture, though, I just don't think being honest with him is feasible without causing a fair bit of offence.  At the time of writing, I just refused the offer of a biscuit from the admin lady in my office and her reaction was as if I had just ran over her dog or something, she looked genuinely upset.  I should have lied about wanting the biscuit and just hid it under some papers on my desk if I didn't want to eat it.

I'm not saying I never lie or that I am perfect, but I do try and live my life as honestly as I possibly can and I can remember past lies that came back to bite me when I was found out.  Having to remember all one's untruths is also a hassle I could really do without.  Along with the practical reasons for not lying, I feel a pang of guilt surging through me that makes me extremely uncomfortable when I do lie, so I still don't do it very much, even in Korea.  I do often let others do the lying for me though in Korea, and this is especially relevant with my wife and her parents.

In Western society too, being honest can hurt you, and I think Sam Harris brought-up the examples of people who exaggerate their CVs (resumes) having an advantage in employment over those who are honest and write a true CV.  However, I strongly feel that honesty is far more valued in Western countries, and if you are discovered to be lying this is deplored far more than in Korea at least, and possibly Far Eastern culture generally.  I also think people in Western countries are more interested in exposing liars and this holds especially true for parents and their children.

With this in mind then, while I agree whole-heartedly with Sam Harris about an honest world being a better one and a honest life being better for the individual, I must say that I think it depends.

I think Korean society would certainly be a better one if people lied less, just like Western society would be, but for the individual I am left scratching my head a little as to the best answer.  When it comes to our everyday lives, I think it is much easier to be honest in Western culture and that the fruits of the labour of being honest can be enjoyed fairly swiftly.  In a respect-based culture like Korea, on the other hand, I am more sceptical; honesty in this culture can cause real problems, not just in getting ahead in matters to do with work, but also in relationships generally.  For the benefits of not lying to show themselves to the individual, the whole culture would have to change, but I don't think this is the case in the West.


Re: The Necessity of Lying in Korea

you paint an accurate picture of what i've experienced during my long service of teaching there. makes me feel slimey.  Then I read a book called 'radical honesty' by brad blanton. totally not a concept widely accepted or welcomed in a culture such as korea. 

i agree with you in your point about how it shows the opposite of true respect. that makes it seem that it is preferred to appear to respect than to truly respect. which as a global individual, i just can't get on board with.


but we seem to live in  a world (generally speaking of course) that just exacerbates the kind of face saving that is the norm in asian life.

nice read, bit long tho. i made it thru

Re: The Necessity of Lying in Korea

I like the way you write. Although I have to admit like the previous poster a tad too long.

Regardless, I relate to a lot of what you said. But, you should know by now never refuse anything that's offered to you for free, regardless of any ties or implications that might come with it. Just smile and accept.

Gone of the days where I would refuse my students "gifts" of drinks and food as I thought it could implicate me in any possible allegations of bribery or favouritism. For all I know the intention might just be plain old genorosity on the students' behalf, but who knows. All I know is that they make no difference to the final grade I award them.

Anyhow going to try and add you to my own blog. Haven't quite figured out how yet, but will get there eventually!

Re: The Necessity of Lying in Korea

Many thanks.

And yes, waffling on does appear to be a bit of a vice I have.  Haven't quite developed the ability to express all of what I want to say in smaller chunks just yet.

The admin lady in my office is really pretty as well, even more reason to just have accepted the biscuit!  However, it was at the end of the day and I was about to go for a run and it wasn't in a packet and I panicked and didn't know what to do, so I fell back on honesty.  Stupid.