Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Korean Sincerity? Hierarchy Demands It.

'Nuff said.

Okay, maybe not quite enough. So . . . here goes.

For some years now, I've been puzzled by the Korean emphasis upon sincerity. Don't misunderstand me -- I also think sincerity a good thing. But ask an American to name the most important virtues that a person can have, and I doubt that sincerity would appear near the top. Ask a Korean, however, and sincerity seems to get top billing . . . or thereabouts.

Why?

Yeah, I know -- Americans are superficial, so why would anybody expect them to value sincerity?

But I'm asking about Koreans. Why do they value sincerity?

"Do they?" you ask.

"Apparently," I reply.

For instance, at every one of Korea University's Nobel Laureate lectures, Dean Jae Chun Hyun extolled the value of "sincerity" in his introductory remarks. The Nobel Laureates -- we learned -- each possessed "creativity," "lofty goals," and "sincerity."

"Creativity?" Sure.

"Lofty goals?" Uh . . . well, okay, a Nobel Prize is pretty lofty.

"Sincerity?" Really? But a lot of these guys were Americans, and everybody knows that Americans are superficial.

So why this Korean obsession with sincerity?

The answer suddenly occurred to me just the other day (so it must have been percolating on a back burner of my mind ever since I first posed the question to myself years ago).

Koreans live in a hierarchical society in which loyalty to one's superiors imposes itself as a socially demanded duty. Consequently, Koreans conform to expectations and explicitly demonstrate their loyalty in various observable ways -- bowing, for instance, deeper bows expressing more profound subordination to a more elevated superior.

But do such things really demonstrate sincere loyalty?

Koreans never know for sure, so they worry about the question and elevate the virtue of sincerity by way of compensation.

Sincerity becomes imposed by the hierarchy -- another duty-driven virtue, but one even less easily gauged than loyalty.

8 Comments:

At 9:56 AM, Blogger Bal(t)imoron said...

This requirement to perform duties is soldily Confucian, but I am always struck by the insincerity of the manifestations. For instance, children often perform a ritual of crying profusely and rubbing hands together when they perceive they are wrong. But, they stop doing this as if they were turning off a tap. It looks so fake. I see kids go from hideous screaming and begging for forgiveness to laughter in a split second.

I also hear from Koreans, that drinking socially allows Koreans to measure a person's sincerity, to know your heart. I always think, that if you didn't lie all the time when you're sober, maybe you wouldn't need the booze.

 
At 10:38 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

You probably have more insight into the Korean character than I do. Most of my interactions stay at the level of professor-student, which tends to give one a distorted perspective.

That's why seeing the reason for the emphasis upon sincerity took me so long.

Plus . . . I'm actually a bit dense and use this blog to disguise that fact (so don't tell anybody).

But I try to see things with eyes wide open.

By the way, how many handles do you go by?

 
At 7:50 PM, Blogger Sperwer said...

I think you are correct about the relationship between Confucian subordination aqnd the thirst for sincerity. in Korean society. The problem as I see it is that Koreans are incapable of genuine sincerity because it can never manifest itself outide of s drunken stupor, and they also cannot recognize it outside that degraded context because it never exists outside it in their world.

 
At 8:02 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

So . . . the spiritual thirst for sincerity manifests itself as a physical thirst for alcohol?

Clever analogy.

Yet, I wouldn't go quite so far as to assert that expressions of genuine sincerity never occur in Korean society. In some cases, feeling corresponds to duty. And drinking together might lay a foundation to build upon in a later, sober condition.

But duty does tend to impair sincerity.

 
At 10:06 PM, Blogger Sperwer said...

The analogy (?) is yours, not mine. The thirst for sincerity, which may or may not be "spiritual", does not so much manifest itself as a thirst for soju, (although that is possible and may become true in the case of individual seekers as the lubricant itself comes to be a subtitute for the thing it is only supposed to birth); but it can't be slaked in kind in Korea without copious amounts of booze to provide a convenient excuse for forgiving (?) and forgetting (?), or making beleive that you have, all that is "sincerely" said under the influence - and probably excusing one's failure to order one conduct in accordance with one's sincerity because "inevitably" one cannot. What passes for sincerity in Korea seems doubly insincere to me because it never gets translated into conduct and, more importantly, since it is so colored by inebriation, it's difficult to grant it status as sincerity at all - as opposed simply to drunken whingeing.

I think it would be interesting to explore the relationship of the concepts behind the use of the word "sincerity" and the phrase with which Koreans so often excuse their insincerity, and often outright dishonsety, i.e., "it (is)(was) 'inevitable'".

 
At 4:05 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

So, that's why the analogy was so clever!

I agree that exploring these concepts further would be very interesting. Relevant to this, I'm not familiar with the excuse that you refer to, so could you explain it a bit more?

 
At 2:38 PM, Anonymous christina choi said...

As a korean, I find these comments very offencive. koreans are very diligent people who respect their jobs and their positions. And what is so wrong about having some drink after a hard work? alcohol to korean, is not an excuse, it more like a rest. In this small land what else could they find? and at least they work and then drink.

 
At 4:43 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Christina, no offense was intended, at least not from me.

My interest lay solely in understanding the Korean emphasis upon sincerity, which I hope wasn't offensive.

I also hope that no Americans were offended by being called "superficial."

That said, the drinking culture in Japan, China, and -- yes -- Korea is very problematic. Koreans themselves are beginning to refuse to be forced to drink shot after shot of whiskey just because their bosses demand it.

As for having nothing else to do in this small land ... well, Koreans are creative people, so I'm sure that they can find alternatives to getting drunk with the boss.

Jeffery Hodges

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