From an expat point of view speaking to your Korean boss can be quite a challenge. Not only do you have a language barrier but you also have major culture differences. The culture differences effect you as individuals but also have a huge effect on the workplace. Sometimes your relationship with your boss can effect your entire life in Korea, even your personal life. So it is wise to learn how to understand each other and develop a healthy relationship. In this blog I will attempt to introduce you to a few ideas that may help you build an understanding relationship with your boss.
First of all, it is important to keep in mind this country’s background; your new boss doesn’t share the same outlook on life as you do, he or she hasn’t had the same experiences as you have and in many cases you don’t even share the same language. Korea has a very long, ancient history which dates back thousands of years. When comparing Korea and the United States its like comparing apples and oranges; the United States has less than 300 years of history. With that said it is very clear why change can seem to happen over night in the U.S. and why that same change may take decades to spark interest within Korean society.
One challenge many expats have encountered with their bosses, particularly their male bosses, is that they feel like their boss is always yelling at them or scolding them. This is especially an issue when your boss speaks to you in Korean, assuming you understand and/or if your boss is from the Busan area (Koreans from the southern part of the peninsula generally speak with a bit more emotion in their voices). I’ve found that paying close attention to body language and facial expressions is the key in these situations. It’s clear if your boss’s face is scrunched, eyebrows tilted inward and he’s thrashing his hands about that he is probably not happy with you. Body language is an international concept; it’s important that you keep this in mind. If your boss isn’t portraying this kind of body language, chances are he or she is just trying to explain something to you. It is often that Koreans, particularly the older generation, speak louder or in a more harsh tone to communicate a simple message or even just to invite you somewhere. He or she may be trying to say, ”would you like to come to dinner with us?” But by his or her tone you may think that your boss is actually saying, “COME TO DINNER OR YOU’RE FIRED!!” Sometimes your boss may not be inviting you somewhere, but he or she may want to discuss a serious work-related issue with you, keep in mind that your boss’s tone may not change at all to sound more polite or more accommodating. Give your boss the benefit of the doubt, that he or she isn’t trying to be rude or disrespectful, but that it is simply another culture difference to be understood and overcome.
Korea is perhaps the most Confucius-minded country of all Asian countries; some would even venture to say that it bypasses China in this area. This plays a large part in people’s relationships with one another. There’s a certain way one must behave, speak to and even eat around his or her elders. Respecting someone who is older than you (even by just a few years) is mandatory. And if that person happens to also be your boss, you can imagine what kind of respect is required. There is indeed a tricky balance that is difficult to achieve. Without compromising your dignity as a free-thinking individual you must somehow figure out how to yield your behavior. In a lot of ways it requires that you just listen. This may seem simple but as a westerner from a society that aims to promote individual thought and the right to one’s own opinion, this can be quite a challenge. It seems impossible to manage both sides: freedom of expression and yielding your expression. However, if you are able to achieve that balance well enough you will be able to have a productive relationship with your boss. I think a lot of situations simply require patience, especially if you are trying to request that something change or be done in your favor.
Another major culture difference between western culture and Korean culture is the insistent and persistent pursuance of perfection and excellence. In the 2012 study of OECD countries, South Korea ranked highest in weekly working hours. Koreans are known to be workaholics and it’s very important that you keep this in mind. Not that they will necessarily always hold you to the same standard, but at times there could be some misunderstanding about what is expected from you. It’s always safe to do beyond what you think is expected. Keep in mind the amount of monetary investment your boss has made in you and other expats who move to Korea for work. Not only do they pay you a monthly salary but most of the time they’re also paying for your airfare, housing accommodations, health insurance and end-of-the-year severance bonus. Your boss wants to see a return in his or her investment and this is quite a reasonable expectation. Don’t get me wrong, I have had my fair share of terrible bosses in Korea, some undeserving of my hard work, but for the most part as long as I have been patient and understanding, even the worst boss has been able to do accommodate my basic needs.