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Everything You Need to Know About Ulsan

A failure to communicate?

By Daniel Kessler

As an expat in Korea, I can safely say that we all have similar problems that we run into with work, with the Korean government or with certain Korean people we deal with on a regular basis. Most of these problems stem from communication issues. In this article I will explain my version of why things the way they are. I would also love to get your feedback, more specifically your explanations on why things the way they are, here in Korea.

Malcolm Gladwell in his most recent bestselling book Outliers writes about how in the late 80’s Korean airlines had one of the highest crash ratings. After many crashes, Boeing did a study on this Korean Airlines problem and found that problem was a communication issue. In summary, the problem was with the pilot, co-pilot and flight engineer and their inability to communicate in the sky. The co-pilot would try to tell the pilot there was a problem but he could not speak to him in a direct and blunt manor so the pilot did not understand the incoming danger and the plane crashed. Variations of this pattern happened many times. Finally Boeing had all the pilots fired, required new pilots to learn English and communicate in English only, when in the sky.

The Korean language has six different levels of conversational addresses, depending on the relationship between the people communicating. If someone is in a powerful position, the subservient person must communicate with that person in an indirect way. In Korean culture, all social behavior and actions are conducted in the order of seniority or ranking. As the saying goes, chanmul to wi alay ka issta, there is order even to drinking cold water.

This is a culture where enormous attention is paid to the relative standing of any two people in conversation. So much focus is on this formality and indirect subtle communication, it is my belief that it does not allow for certain times of cognition, the free flowing of ideas and creative problem solving.

In western communication we have a transmitter orientation style of speaking. It is considered the responsibility of the speaker to communicate ideas clearly and unambiguously. The speaker often does this by repeating him or herself or changing his or her words or examples until he receives feedback from the listener that he or she is understood.

For example in western style communication, after showing up to work late last week a western boss might say. “You know you were late last week on Tuesday. That is against school policy. If you are late two more times, then you will be fired. Are we clear? Do you understand? “

Korea, like many Asian countries, has a receiver oriented communication style. It is up to the listener to make sense of what is being said. This high-power distance communication works only when the listener is capable of paying close attention, and it works only if the two parties in a conversation have the luxury of time, in order to unwind each other’s meanings.

An example of this eastern style of communication is ( following in the same context, where you were late for work last week) Your boss says to you very casually. “When John was late last week, the Principle was not happy. “ He says this with the same assumption that you will understand what he says and change your behavior or you will be fired.

One would have to interpret this sentence and its various meanings and appropriately guess the correct meaning. Then this person would have to indirectly check with the boss if what he/she guessed is the correct meaning. This takes a lot of time to decode correctly and while energy is focused on semantics, energy is not focused on creative problem solving and moving on to the next problem.

This style of communication is not good for business where clear concise communication is necessary to operate and compete on the global marketplace. This is the reason why westerners are hired to run, manage and operate Korean multinational companies. Westerners do not have issues about being direct to superiors and over communicating until a mutual understanding is reached.

Honest feedback from the people who work for serves as a competitive advantage in the business world. In Korea, this honest feedback is lost in the noise of polite formality and indirect communication. With thousands of westerners in Korea teaching English and insinuating ourselves into Korean culture. Will hundreds of years of cultural legacy change Korea?