The Human Factor in Korea


We all know that the most difficult factors to measure in any situation are the subjective ones. In Western paradigms of judgment, we try to take feelings into account in our own way. In Korea, there seems to be a bit of a difference.

The Fender Bender Story

I had a little fender bender last winter, where a Korean woman was parked and ready to pull out. I was slowly driving past in the parking lot when she pulled out and tapped the side of my car. That caused about w300,000 won (about $300.00) in damage. She hadn’t seen me because she had failed to scrape the snow off her side windows. She simply couldn’t see.

She was quite distraught, mostly because she feared upsetting her husband who showed up later. He turned out to be a rather stern type, and steadily gave her the evil glare throughout the rest of the episode. But the police started out telling her that it was her fault. Upon getting this feedback, she went into an emotional tirade. Long story short, the Police ended up changing their analysis based on her emotional response. They blamed me for 30% of the fault. I felt sorry for her too, so I didn’t protest the change.


In America, the Police would have been sympathetic to the woman’s emotions (hopefully). However, the situational justice would have taken precedent over the emotion. It is just the way we see things. In Korea, the subjective emotion of the parties in a situation seems to have more bearing on judicial outcomes.

The Street Market Story

Another situation happened in the street market. A long time vendor had been in long term posession of a sales space, and had gotten older. She came to her stall less and less, so the City began leasing the space to someone else. The elderly Korean woman objected by coming early one day, and laying down in the stall so that no one else could set up there. This initiated a visit by the City representatives, and matters were adjusted to accommodate her.


Once again, in America things would have been handled differently. If the woman would have remained laying there, the police would have come and forcibly removed her. What is more, most people would have applauded the stricter action.

To a Westerner, the Korean way of approaching an emotional situation can seem quite disorienting at first. But I have actually been the recipient of such sensitivity myself a number of times in the past. Although I didn’t indulge in an emotional display, my pitiable situational estate drew accommodation from kind hearted bureaucrats.

Chewy in The Middle

I recall a Far Side comic where two polar bears are standing over an igloo, and the ice house has a bite taken out of it. One polar bear is saying to the other, “Crunchy on the outside. Chewy on the inside.” Korean people can be that way too. They can be a bit abrupt on the outside, but underneath, most have quite a soft heart.

korean feelings, crunchy on the outside chewy on the inside

Here is some good advise in dealing with Korean resistance to reasonable requests. If at first you get a no, ask again in a polite, sincere manner. It won’t work every time, but usually, the third or fourth time, their inherent compassion will burn through their PaliPali (hurry, hurry) exterior.

– By Jeff Rogers


  • I’ve seen that happen too. But it might just be a normal human thing. I can get mad at someone, but if I listen to their story, I usually calm down. It’s called empathy, and pretty normal among humans in general.

    • Good point, Jason. Sometimes we overcomplicate simple things, but in Korean’s case, I really believe there is a more regular extra layer of kindness once you peel back the onion a bit. Maybe more dependable is a better way to say it than more regular. Anyway, thanks for your input.

  • Those are funny stories, but seriously, Most Korean people are like that. Soft on the inside…

    • You should tell a story that you experience on this topic. Have Korean people ever responded leniently toward you when you were upset? I have a good example when I got my drivers license here.

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