There are some difficulties in living and working in any foreign country. South Korea is not the exception. Not being able to identify and then manage these difficulties can be frustrating and exhausting at times. Trying to figure out Korean workplace culture is an added stress on top of the one you get from teaching the students at your organization.
As an English Program Coordinator at Gyeonggi-do Institute for Global Education, I have the unique perspective of experiencing Korean workplace culture as a Korean and as a non-Korean. As a non-Korean worker, my team of teacher trainers and I have to brainstorm, design and teach educational content to teach to the trainees who are elementary and secondary teachers of Gyeonggi Province. As a Korean worker, I not only have to perform administrative duties but also mentor my team on how to run programs and meet the demands of our organization. In my job, I have to work with both teacher trainers who are non-Korean and supervisors who are Korean. Both groups with different perspectives in mind. However, this is not just something that happens in GIGE, but in most organizations in Korea that have Korean and non-Korean staff members: two groups with different perspectives in mind. In the following sections, I have written down some observations on what I think are the main sources of frustrations for non-Korean workers and possibly along with tips and techniques to resolve them.
Throughout my experiences working in Korea, there are times when workplace culture is discussed. One common theme I hear a majority of the time is the lack of communication. I hear comments like:
“I wish they (admin, co-teacher, etc.) told me about that earlier. If I would have known, I would have done something about it.”
“I came to school today and nobody was here. It was a day off. Nobody told me about today.”
“I was told that (something) needs to be done by today. I wish I would have been given more time.”
While there are a myriad of situations and reasons why non-Korean people feel this way, I want to present a few suggestions on how to open up communication lines so the lack of communication can happen less often.
- Initiate communication between you and the Korean staff – While there are Korean staff who do not relay information to you at all, there are also Korean staff members who do a mental calculation of what you need to know. When considering what you need to know, the Korean staff member might be thinking about how to tell you in English, whether it is relevant for your job, whether you will be overwhelmed by all the information that you are being told, how you would react to the information, etc. While doing this cost/benefit analysis of telling you certain information, the Korean staff might guess wrong and might omit something that you actually need. If you think this might be your case, then you need to open the lines of communication and relieve your Korean staff member of these thoughts by just asking for all the information. If translating Korean to English is a concern, just ask for the information in Korean and use Chat GPT, Google Translate, and/or Papago to decipher the information yourselves. In this way, it lowers the barrier of communication. The Korean staff member does not have to stress being a messenger, he or she can just be the messenger.
- When you ask, ask politely – I am going to go out on a limb and assume that people act professionally at their workplace and are courteous to fellow co-workers. But I think as non-Koreans, we assume we can ask people to do their job descriptions. For example, if I have computer problems, I can ask the IT person in my organization to come and fix my problem immediately. Or if I need an income report document, the school administration staff can handle it. While it may be a part of a staff member’s duty, still ask politely and thank them afterwards. Korea still operates under a hierarchical system in the workplace. Unless work comes from a position of authority, Koreans don’t like to be told what to do, even if it is in their job description.
- Have patience – There are two things to consider here: time and language. Most schools or organizations have a yearly plan of events, meetings, etc. But if you have been in Korea long enough, you know not everything goes according to plan. In addition, the changes of these plans may happen suddenly. So when you get information about sudden changes, there might be a possibility that the Korean staff member might have received the information suddenly, too. I feel giving Korean staff members the benefit of the doubt is important here when opening the lines of communication. It’s likely the Korean staff member might also not like to receive sudden news. It can be doubly stressful for that person because now they might have to tell you about these changes. When it comes time to hear this news, I feel we need to have this understanding of the Korean staff members. The second thing to consider is language ability. When news is being told to you in English, there needs to be room for error. If your Korean staff member has near-fluent proficiency, then there might not be a problem, but more often than not, that kind of language ability is rare. This means when a Korean staff member speaks to you in English, they are trying to communicate with what they know, and hoping it is understood. A strategy to manage this can be to say what you understood and confirm the information. Another strategy can be to ask follow up questions to elicit more information so you can come to your own conclusions.
- Understand what the Korean teachers and staff do – There are certain things that you might need assistance with. This assistance can be professional, i.e. visa processes, school administration, classroom management, lesson planning, getting to know your student population, obtaining class resources, etc. This assistance can be outside of the workplace, i.e. finding an apartment, interpreting Korean social cues that you have experience but cannot quite understand, using Korean websites to buy products, etc. I think when it comes with any kind of assistance, it should not be taken for granted. Korean teachers and staff, along with you, have to manage their duties while also dealing with unexpected events. Some have families of their own to take care of. Some might have other personal issues they need to attend to. We never really know what a person has to deal with in their lives. While living and working in a foreign country is difficult, living and working in your own country can also be difficult (just a different kind of difficult). When we have this understanding in mind, there might be some challenging things that we can struggle with. Of course, when it is absolutely necessary, ask for help. But we need to use the call for help sparingly.
Effort and/or the perception of it is not an aspect of workplace culture that is discussed. It almost seems too obvious to talk about. When you are at your job, just do your duties stated in the contract. Do that really well and your contract will get renewed. Most of the time, working hard at your job helps you continue doing your job.
While working hard is important, what is also important is to show how hard you work. There is a performance aspect to a Korean workplace. In other words, making a perceivable attempt at effort is just as important as the effort itself. Later, I will give some examples of how to do this. But first, I would like to present some caveats about showing effort. First, showing effort does not mean reporting to people every single thing you did at work. There is no need for that and it might quite possibly be viewed negatively. Second, showing effort does not mean faking your duties. You still need to do your job. Faking it might not get noticed temporarily, but I don’t feel it is a good long term Korean workplace survival strategy.
Then, what is showing effort? I want to contrast showing effort with making effort. Here is a sample list of actions under each category below:
- Research lessons
- Write lesson plans
- Teach classes
- Set up the classroom
- Attend professional development seminars, workshops, and conferences
- Publish articles and/or research
- Attend and participate in meetings
- Do administrative duties
- Dress nicely
- Design visually appealing materials and/or presentations
- Volunteer assistance
- Get to know staff, school, students
- Actively participate in meetings, school events, etc.
- Use Korean
- Present in workshops, seminars, and conferences
- Do action research
Making an effort is doing the assumed duties to the best of your ability. For example when preparing to teach a class, a teacher has to brainstorm lesson ideas, create a teaching strategy, make materials, and research content. While a teacher might devote a lot of time and energy doing this work, it mostly goes unnoticed and is taken for granted even if you might teach some creative lessons.
Now let’s take a look at the previous example from the perspective of showing effort. This same teacher above could spend less time and energy on researching lesson ideas and teaching materials. Instead, this teacher could spend some time dressing nicely, designing visually appealing and understandable worksheets, and teaching the class energetically. Showing effort means you are making your work visible and tangible.
You might ask, “Why do I have to show effort?” My answer would be, “You don’t have to, but it does give you an advantage.” Your job performance not only has objective measures, but also subjective measures. Showing effort enhances your job performance subjectively. People need to know the wonderful things that you are doing. You cannot assume people know.
Two things from the “Showing Effort” list I want to stress are volunteer assistance and using Korean. Regarding volunteering assistance, I am not saying to disregard what you have to do in order to help others. What I mean is to offer assistance when you have some down time at work or if you see someone who needs help. For example, if you have an empty class period and are just sitting in front of your computer watching Youtube videos while your co-worker is busy making decorations for a school event, then offer to help. The co-worker might not accept your offer, but the fact that you offered it showed that you are considerate towards his or her needs. Sometimes, volunteering assistance can be unprompted. For example, when it is midterm exam time, you can offer to review and edit test questions.
With reference to using Korean, you do not have to have a high proficiency level to speak to your Korean staff members. By using Korean whenever you can, you are showing that you are interested in the language and culture. In addition, it shows that you are trying to understand Korean people. That image of you trying to understand Korean language and culture goes a long way on being favorably viewed in Korean workplace culture.
Most non-Koreans want to maximize their life socially and professionally in Korea. My hope is that with better lines of communication with the Korean staff and a focus on showing effort at work that your work life can be a little bit easier and less frustrating.
This is not the first time a GIGE teacher trainer has written about Korean workplace culture. To read about it from a different perspective, click on the article written by Eric Flynn called “Tips for Being a Successful Native English Teacher in Korea.”