This piece is the first in the Quest’s effort to draw out student voices and opinions by converting insightful comments and discussions from the community’s various Facebook groups into articles.

This is meant to serve as a gentle introduction to the most drastic differences in social interactions and norms between direct and indirect cultures, and as a starter guide for an unfamiliar mind adapting to Seoul. This is particularly the case for the class of 2021 which will spend the coming semester in Seoul. I hope that by showcasing the drama of our first week in Seoul last year, I can help to clarify and explain cultural differences and share some useful learning opportunities.

Last year, as we excitedly set up for the first week in Seoul, rumors circulated that our residence hotel was infuriated because fellow classmates got drunk and behaved inappropriately. Shortly thereafter, we received an email from our beloved residential staff member, Katie Hyon. Here is an excerpt of what she said:

“It is severely against Korean decorum, and considered incredibly impolite to drink soju [popular Korean rice liquor] straight from the bottle… I was told by upset hotel staff that multiple students were seen passed out in the lobby and the outdoor patio tables, how one student went into the lobby-adjacent restroom, took off all their clothes and slept there bare, and that students have been drinking on the roof.”

Rage! The hotel, naturally, was incensed and closed off the roof for safety purposes.

Although this is hilarious, it does not yet warrant its own article. Instead, what intrigued me was the misunderstanding between the students, staff, and hotel personnel: the staff and hotel were outraged, whereas students thought it was no big deal and the hotel had “zero chill.”

The misunderstanding was cultural. If it were a hotel in San Francisco, the staff would have perhaps berated the students and killed the party, and we would have known how serious they were about it.

To translate the cultural connotations, drinking soju from the bottle in a hotel lobby in downtown Gangnam is like drinking vodka from the bottle in a hotel lobby in downtown Manhattan. However, like most parts of East Asia, Korea has a reserved and indirect culture.

Even if drinking soju in public and getting wildly drunk was completely outside of the Korean social norm, the hotel staff would be morally obliged not to criticize guests directly and kill the party. In East Asian cultures, a guest commands higher respect than the norm. In general, hosts are supposed to put their guests higher than themselves.

We were guests at the hotel and it would be considered somewhat rude for the hotel to face us off directly. It would just be bad business. So they took the more reserved approach of notifying Hyon, and letting her handle the issue ex post facto.

As a person who has had reasonable exposure to both cultural styles of communication, I felt obligated to write a post in the Minerva Seoul Facebook group. To my delight, the post was well-received. At the request of the Minerva Quest, here I share the original post, edited to reflect context:

Before I say anything, I hope that my piece here is not at all taken as a judgment, but as a (hopefully unbiased) observation, and an invitation for discussion on culture shocks and cultural differences.

Accountability is perceived and tolerated differently across cultures. Let me elaborate.

In more direct cultures, people do things until others ask them not to. The expectation, correct me if I’m mistaken, is that everyone is supposed to be direct in doing things, be appropriately reactive to others’ voiced concerns, and speak up to people when they dislike something. Being accountable in a direct setting stems from these norms, i.e. addressing others’ concerns and react accordingly. This set of norms is self-consistent and forms a stable social order.

In more indirect cultures — assuming my East Asian cultural background is any good in providing a coarse understanding of Korean culture — asking other people not to do things is already considered on the unnecessary/uncomfortable side. The expectation is that everyone should be considerate in their actions, be appropriately proactive to others’ potential concerns, and criticize indirectly and reservedly when they dislike something. Being accountable in an indirect setting stems from this set of norms, i.e. addressing others’ concerns proactively. This other set of norms, although alien to the direct person, is also self-consistent and forms a different stable social order.

When I first arrived in San Francisco, I had a culture shock much like this one, but the other way around. My first week in, I felt that everyone was direct, unreserved — even rude if you will — in their opinions and discussions, and I felt attacked by the entire environment. I knew what it is like to think in a Western setting, but it hadn’t been intuitive. I can’t recognize faces, I don’t even know how long a hug or handshake is appropriate, what acceptable small talk is, and a million other smaller things. Around mid-term, my brain finally began to understand what it feels like to operate in a Western setting.

The thing with cultural adaptation is that open-mindedness is but the baseline prerequisite. More importantly, it takes time and practice to learn it intuitively. In this respect, I have to say that Seoul residence hotel is not the most friendly environment to get practice. But please, please don’t give up and say “fuck it, I’m done with this shit.” In an effort to persuade you all, from a very utilitarian perspective, Korean culture is mostly generalizable to a lot of other East Asian cultures, which covers about a quarter of the global population.

So you would rightly ask – “how do people even do anything here if they don’t voice concerns?” Short answer: they reckon and ask for permission and opinion first, and then do things. Long answer: they intuit potential opinions from social norms and what they know about the stakeholders, ask for permission/opinions, and then proceed. It might seem counterproductive, but it goes together with the other norms in indirect settings – unless what you’re doing is outrageous, most of the times people won’t outright turn you down/criticize/react when you ask them for permission. Therefore, I believe Katie was not overreacting when she sent that email: for people in a more indirect culture, the barrier to react negatively is high. When people react or criticize even given an indirect culture, harm is likely already done (like our hotel in the rooftop case).

Again, this is meant as a hopefully factual piece, and not at all any pointed judgment. I am not an expert in Korean culture per se, but I have been through a culture shock, and some of my East Asian cultural background (Chinese) is translatable to South Korea. Feel free to ask me for opinions on East Asian culture, general differences between West/East (which I strive to be free of judgment against either side), and strategies for cultural adaptation. Cheers.

The offer stands: I’m always glad to discuss and learn about cultural differences. It has been my reasoning that since I cannot expect other people to adapt culturally to me, I will actively adapt to all other cultures. I have nothing to lose, and only knowledge to gain from adaptations — this was principally why I came to Minerva.

Have fun in Seoul, and drink soju from a glass!

Last Updated

Want to help improve the Quest? Fill out our annual reader feedback survey!