10 of the Most Important Words in Korea

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CULTURAL CODE WORDS THAT DEFINE THE KOREAN MIND

In my book, Korea’s Business & Cultural Code Words I noted that all languages are reflections of the emotional, spiritual, and intellectual character of the people who created them. I also noted that the older, more structured, and more exclusive a society and its language are, the more terms it has that are loaded with cultural nuances that control the attitudes and behavior of the people. Here are introductions to 10 Korean terms that are especially important.

1) Han (Hahn) / The Force is With Them

South Korea is a tiny nation on the southern half of the Korean Peninsula that has one of the largest economies in the world with huge industrial conglomerates that sell their high-tech products worldwide.

The remarkable story of a small nation that not too long ago was part of a Hermit Kingdom that the industrial revolution had not touched is not well known.

There are two factors that help explain the success of the South Korea. First, following the end of World War II in 1945, the southern portion of the peninsula came under the control of the United States, creating a window of opportunity for South Korea to develop a market economy.

The second factor that played a fundamental role in the rise of South Korea is subsumed in the word han (hahn), which Korean scholars translate as “unrequited resentments”—which must be further explained because it means more than the phrase suggests.

My personal definition of han (unrequited resentments ) refers to all of the ambitions, emotions, desires, natural impulses, spirit, and intellectual impulses that were oppressed and denied by the previous governments of Korea.

When all these repressed feelings were finally released by South Koreans their once repressed energy, power, and passion allowed them to create a modern economy that can only be fully appreciated firsthand.

This pent-up energy and passion of South Koreans has not yet expended itself. To visit South Korea and see the ferocity, dedication, and diligence with which the people work is an astounding experience.

On the other hand, North Koreans are still trapped in the mud of their previous Communist leaders. They have not yet been freed from the chains of han.

2) Hanguk (Hahn-guuk) / The Korean Nation

The last line in the Korean national anthem does more to explain the pride and passion that South Koreans have for their nation more than anything else I can think of.  It goes like this:

“Let us love, come grief, come gladness, this, our beloved land!”

But to fully understand the passion and pride that many Koreans have for their land you must be Korean. You must know its history, its glories, and its tragedies especially its tragedies.

Over the past two and a half millennia, the Koreans have been invaded and occupied by the Chinese, the Mongols, and the Japanese,. When they were not fighting outsiders, they were burdened by internal regional conflicts. Despite these travails, Korean culture produced some of the world’s greatest works of art, created masterpieces of poetry, and made technical advances, such as the movable type for printing, far earlier than any other nation.

Another reason for the pride Koreans have for their nation is the beauty of the peninsula. The primary religion of Koreans, like that of the Japanese and Native Americans, included the belief that they were a part of nature, and that recognizing and respecting the beauty of nature was a key part of their being.

Understanding the way Koreans feel about their Hanguk (The Korean Nation) and fully respecting their feelings can be a major asset for foreigners visiting and living in Korea.

3) Enuri (Eh-nuu-ree) / Bargaining as a Social Skill

Foreign visitors who go shopping in South Korea and foreigners who engage in business with South Koreans should be aware of the traditions of bargaining in the country. Like many old societies, bargaining in Korea has traditionally been an important economic skill.

Additionally, many South Koreans also view bargaining as an important social skill.

The reason for the early development and widespread use of bargaining is that until recent times, there were no widely established principles for setting the cost of goods or the value of labor. It was a matter of choice and need.

Today, Korean department stores, fine boutiques and the like have fixed prices. But in the great city markets, enuri (bargaining as a social skill) or haggling, to use a colloquial term, is still practiced by merchants and shoppers.

There is something else visitors should know about bargaining,and negotiating,in Korea. The average Korean is a master at bargaining because the nature of their class and rank-based society has made it imperative that they develop verbal skills to a high level and that they become especially clever at using emotional tactics in their bargaining.

This latter ploy typically throws Western businesspeople for a loop because they have little or no experience in using emotion as a bargaining tool. Koreans typically turn the negotiation of simple points into high drama by introducing various emotional elements. When this happens, it is best to remain calm, collected, and stick to your guns until your Korean counterparts accept the idea that you are not going to be bamboozled into anything.

3) Anshim (Ahn-sheem) / Peace of Mind…Korean Style

It may be a bit difficult to accept the idea that Koreans have a deeply embedded need and desire for anshim (ahn-sheem) or peace of mind after you have engaged in a bargaining session.

However, the influence of Buddhism and Confucianism had a powerful impact on the mindset of Koreans, teaching them to be at ease and comfortable only in settings that are highly structured in which all the traditional forms of etiquette are followed precisely.

Obviously, this conditioning did not preclude loud verbal bouts and even physical action if they were done within the accepted guidelines.

Presently, the concept and importance of anshim (peace of mind) continues to play an important role. Korean culture continues to support the idea of doing nothing to disturb the peace of mind of other people in the use of language, in their personal relations, in the ethics they follow in business, and so on.

The main thing for foreigners to keep in mind is that anshim in Korea does not mean the same thing as peace of mind in the Western world. For example, some of the demands and dictates in Korea’s business world go against everything Westerners hold dear.

Knowing when and how to develop and maintain anshim in Korea is an interesting challenge that requires substantial knowledge of the culture.

4) Chae-myun (Chay-me-yuun) / Saving Face

Because of the importance of social class and rank in pre-modern Korea, many Koreans became incredibly sensitive about the behavior of others and their own. This hyper-awareness can be attributed to the fact that there were so many things that could get them into trouble, as well as the precise forms of behavior that one had to know and follow to stay right with everybody.

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 culture. In pre-modern Korea, doing something that made someone else “lose face” or for yourself to lose face was not a trivial thing. It could be and often was disastrous.

Today, chae-myum (saving face) continues to be a major factor in all relationships— particularly in work environments and other professional categories.  The way Koreans go about saving 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 or organization.

For instance, some of the solutions Koreans choose are so different thana Western approach that they result in an impasse, if not a complete breakdown in the relationship.

In this situation, the only choice that foreigners in business situations have is to find out what the proposed solution is before it is implemented (they sometimes do it without informing the foreign side), and try to work out a compromise if they do not agree with it.

5) Changpi (Chahng-pee) / Shame

Like the Japanese, the primary sanction in maintaining and enforcing proper cultural behavior among Koreans was traditionally changpi (chahng-pee) or shame, which was generally self-imposed.

Instead of being conditioned by religion to feel guilty as a result of wrongdoing and being subject to punishment by religion-based methods of control, Koreans were conditioned to feel intense shame. Incidentally, shaming turned out to be a more powerful control mechanism than guilt, resulting in Koreans (and Japanese) being far better behaved than their religious-oriented counterparts.

Koreans still live in a shame-controlled culture—which is weaker than what it used to be but by Western standards is still incredibly strong. When Koreans misbehave in any way, the feelings of shame are powerful.

When they are shamed by someone else’s behavior toward them, the sense of shame is even more powerful, and invariably calls for revenge.

The role of shame in Korean culture derives from the influence of Confucianism, which teaches that personal shame should be the basis of all morality—not religious or secular laws.

In earlier times, one of the major sources of shame for male Koreans was failing to live up to the expectations of their families, their fathers, their close kin, and their clan. Now it is more likely failure to live up to their personal ambitions.

It is important for foreigners interacting with Koreans to know enough about the culture to not only be aware of the kind of behavior and/or actions that result in shame, but to also avoid them and learn how to deal with them if they happen inadvertently.

6) Chib (Cheeb) / The Korean Family

There is a lot of talk in the United States and other Western countries about the importance of family, but the Western concept of family and the role the family plays in Western societies pales in comparison to the concept of family in Korea.

To understand and appreciate the importance and power of family in Korea, one must fully understand the Korean term chib (cheeb), which means “household.”

The essence and role of the chib (household) in Korean society goes back to the teachings of Confucius, which holds that respecting and obeying parents is one of the primary principles of morality.

For millennia, Korea was known as the most Confucian-oriented country in Asia, and this was reflected in every facet of Korean culture especially in the family where the father ruled supreme while the women and children could not make decisions or act on their own.

One could say that in the Western sense individuals did not exist in traditional Korean society. Children were taught and required to think and behave in terms of their chib to avoid bringing any kind of dishonor to their family, to protect the family, and to ensure its continuity.

The family was the building blocks of Korea’s hierarchical social and political order that was based on absolute submission of inferiors to superiors.

While the role and importance of the family in Korea has weakened significantly since the mid-20th century, it is still a major factor in the lives of the people—again far more important than in other countries.

Among other things, Korean adults will almost always consult with their families to get their approval before making decisions about work and other important matters. They rarely act on their own.

Foreign companies operating in Korea must keep this factor in mind in their management policies and practices.

7) Chingu (Cheen-guu) / Cultivating Friends

Friendships are important in virtually all societies for business as well as social reasons, but few people go as far as Koreans in their compulsion to develop and keep friendships.

The reason for this extraordinary behavior is that traditionally Koreans could not depend upon anyone except people with whom they had close personal and family ties for anything. This often included services that local officials and bureaucrats were obliged to do for them.

The obligations that family members had to each other and their family, virtually precluded them from establishing close relationships with more than a few outsiders. Most women spent their lives without ever speaking to, much less spending time with, anyone not a member of their family or close kin.

For a period of time in Korean history, women in urban areas could not leave their family compound during the day to shop or pay social visits. They were only allowed to leave the compounds for a few hours at night, during which men were required to stay indoors to keep the two sexes segregated.

Men had a lot more freedom than women, but their outside relationships were generally limited to contacts made in bars and kisaeng (kee-sang)—Korean geisha houses. They were not free to develop a circle of friends in the casual way that is common in Western countries.

These strict political controls ended near the end of the 1800s, but it was to be several decades before both men and women in Korea felt free to exercise the kind of personal freedoms Americans and others take for granted.

However, the legacy of the past is still very much alive in present-day Korea when it comes to friendships. Koreans, especially men, go out of their way to develop and maintain a circle of friends because it is invariably through friends that they can get things donea point that foreigners in Korea need to be aware of.

8) Chinshim (Cheen-sheem) / The Vital Role of Sincerity

When Koreans meet outsiders (non-Koreans) their cultural antenna is always up and turned on. Their antenna is set to read many things about the people they meet—and one of the most important of these things is subsumed in the word chinshim (cheen-sheem), which translates as “sincerity.”

And not surprisingly, chinshimin its Korean context means a lot more than sincerity does in its English context. The reason for this difference is that for millennia in Korea there were no laws that protected the people or guaranteed any personal rights.

Many of the things that Westerners (presently) can take for granted in their relationships with other people did not exist in pre-modern Korea—except with family members and the few personal friends that Koreans were permitted to have.

One of the very first things that Koreans attempted to measure in the new people they met was their degree of chinshim (sincerity. In its Korean context, chinshim refers to a wide range of things: philosophical, spiritual, ethical, as well as general character—which had to be of a high order to be acceptable, much less impressive.

Like all ofthe traditional, cultural attributes of Koreans, their concern with chinshim has decreased since the mid-1900s, but it remains an important part of their character and plays a significant role in their lives.

Among other things, when companies interview potential new employees there are several things that are on the top of their list: their name (which says a lot about the history of their family), what region of the country they were born in (also historically meaningful), where they went to school, and the level of their chinshim.

9) Chiwi (Chee-wee) / Rank Has its Privileges

In strict hierarchical societies rank is of vital importance because it is one of the primary foundations of such societies. You must know or quickly learn the rank of everyone you meet and associate with because rank determines your language and behavior toward others, how they treat you, and what you can, and may, get from them.

Until the 20th century, Korean society was one of the most hierarchical-ridden societies in the world. People belonged to specific classes and subclasses that were structured on an inferior-superior basis with very precise and strict rules controlling their behavior.

This factor made Koreans some of the most rank-conscious people on the planet. To this day rank-consciousness is still an important facet of Korean culture.

For example, in large Korean companies the atmosphere can be similar to a strict military academy. These large companies operate with a rigid formality between the ranks of the employees and managers and very little ,if any, of the joking and casual chatting that one encounters in typical American companies.

This separation by rank also generally follows that of strict military organizations when it comes to longevity in a company. For instance, employees who joined a company last year regard themselves as outranking those who joined this year, even though they may officially be on the same level in the company.

It behooves foreign companies setting up operations in Korea to be acutely aware of the importance of rank to Koreans in their management policies and practices—and this includes social as well as educational “rank.”

10) Chok (Choak) / Clans are Alive and Well in Korea

Koreans trace their history back to just a few family clans that entered the peninsula from the north or northwest. Over the millennia, these clans grew and even though they eventually populated the entire Korean peninsula, they remained intact and fiercely protective of their identities and names.

Early in the history of Korea, leadership of the chok (COULD NOT FIND A CLEAR DEFINITION. TRANSLATION TO ENGLISH SAID “MOIST”) or clans became hereditary. The families of the leaders became the royal houses, hence the newfound concern about their genealogy.

From that time down to the 20th century, Korea’s society remained distinguished by its clans, with only a few families controlling the country—which was often divided into different regions under the control of one clan or another.

Although these ancient clans have survived into modern times and the original families still make up most of the elite of the country, democracy, individualism, and a highly industrialized economy now overshadow their influence. Nevertheless, they are still important in matters of marriage, employment, and political success.

Foreigners engaging with Koreans would be wise to make themselves aware of the clan relationships of their Korean contacts and to diplomatically hear them out about their family histories.

Read 935 times Last modified on Friday, 07 July 2023 21:13
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: www.authorsonlinebookshop.com. 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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