Saving Face in Korea

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Saving Face in Korea Photo by A.C. Parsons

Getting Along & Getting Things Done in Korea!

The Importance Of Saving Face in Korea!

Because of the importance of social class, rank and precise behavioral forms in pre-modern Korea all Koreans became incredibly sensitive about the behavior of others as well as their own actions because there were so many ways they could get into trouble.

Doing something that made someone else “lose face” or yourself losing face was not a trivial thing. It could be, and often was, disastrous—and it is still something that cannot be taken lightly.

This cultural factor gave birth to chae-myun (chay-me-yuun) or “face-saving” as one of the most important—and demanding—aspects of Korean life.

As noted in Korea’s Business & Cultural Code Words, speaking clearly and candidly is one of the things that was traditionally taboo in Korea. Speech became indirect and vague. Direct criticism, especially of superiors, was prohibited and there were serious consequences for breaking the ban.

These rules of behavior, implemented following the beginning of the Choson dynasty in1392, were so detailed and encompassing that they had a fundamental impact on the Korean language itself, which then became a primary means of passing this cult-like behavior on to succeeding generations.

This remarkable development, which evolved from the formal and official adoption of a much sterner version of Confucianism combined with the already hierarchical segregation of social classes, resulted in Korean cultural becoming locked in a time-warp with virtually no change until the latter decades of the 19th century—a 400-plus year period during which the country was known to the outside world as “The Hermit Kingdom.”

Korea’s Hermit Kingdom era did not come to an end until the late 1800s when the Japanese, Russians, Americans and other foreigners arrived and began carving the country up into areas of interest.

The Japanese were the most aggressive, defeating Russia in the 1904-1905 war and soon thereafter invading Korea, annexing the country in1910 and turning it into a colony. But during the Japanese period, which lasted until 1945, the traditional elements of Korean culture were virtually unchanged.

vStill today chae-myum continues to be a major factor in all relationships in Korea, particularly in work environments and in all professional categories—with gender, age, education and other not so obvious factors involved.

The way Koreans go about saving and repairing face often does not conform to Western concepts of what is necessary, right or acceptable—a situation that often causes friction between foreigners and Koreans working in the same company.

In fact, some of the solutions Koreans choose are so far out from what would be a Western approach that they result in an impasse if not a complete breakdown in relationships.

The traditional Korean methods for avoiding and dealing with loss of face include withholding bad news [especially if it happens on a Friday], not telling the truth, and resorting to an old institutionalized practice of repairing the damage by mutually agreeing to pretend that it never happened.

When a loss of face occurs among Korean employees of foreign companies the situation can be serious, whether it involves only the Korean side or the foreign side as well.

Among the problems that occur in foreign companies: promoting a younger person over older people; promoting a graduate of a less prestigious school over employees of the same age who graduated from a brand university; showing favoritism to an employee…and especially showing favoritism toward an employee who speaks English.

It is therefore important for foreign managers in Korea to establish and maintain close relationships with as many of their employees as possible so they will be more likely to learn about serious “face” problems and have an opportunity to work out mutually agreeable solutions.

Read 12183 times Last modified on Monday, 11 July 2022 22:49
Boyé Lafayette De Mente

Boyé Lafayette De Mente has been involved with Asia since the late 1940s as a member of a U.S. intelligence agency, journalist and editor. He is a graduate of Jōchi University in Tokyo, Japan and Thunderbird School of Global Management in Glendale, Arizona, USA. In addition to books on the business practices, social behavior and languages of China, Japan, Korea and Mexico he has written extensively about the moral collapse of the U.S. along with books on his home state of Arizona. To see a full list of his books go to: Recent books include: CHINA Understanding & Dealing with the Chinese Way of Doing Business; JAPAN Understanding & Dealing with the NEW Japanese Way of Doing Business; AMERICA’S FAMOUS HOPI INDIANS; ARIZONA’S LORDS OF THE LAND [the Navajos] and SPEAK JAPANESE TODAY – A Little Language Goes a Long Way!




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