Tom Coyner (and Namkoong Wook) on "janmeori"
Tom Coyner, whom you see above, is an interesting fellow who's been around Korea a long time and works as a management consultant using his expertise in Northeast Asian cultures to advise foreign businessmen on how to do business in the area. He knows a lot of people, and even I have met him -- though he wouldn't remember me. He also hosts a couple of fine websites, Tom Coyner (SeoulMan)'s Home (photography) and Soft Landing Consulting Ltd. (business).
In addition to these activities, Mr. Coyner writes a regular column for the JoongAng Daily. Yesterday's column, "The peculiar power of a small mind" (May 4, 2009), was about the fascinating Korean concept "janmeori" (잔머리):
Struggling with the Korean language, a week ago I was introduced to the word janmeori. I was told that, literally, it means "small mind" [sic., "small head"]. While it has a similar connotation to the English pejorative "small-minded," it has a broader and yet more specific meaning.Mr. Coyner is too polite to say directly, but "janmeori" implies a kind of clever deceptiveness, as the journalist Namkoong Wook explains in "When tricks are the trade, it's survival of the cleverest" (Samsung Website):
Any adult who has lived in Korean society for more than a few months will readily recognize the janmeori aspect of this culture. That is, daily most Koreans are constantly working the angles, pushing the envelope in small, quiet measures so as to get some kind of incremental advantage -- while not paying attention to the larger consequences of their cumulative behaviors.
In an extremely competitive society as this one, Koreans truly excel in janmeori. It can often be a way of not only getting ahead but also keeping up with the pack. The obvious downside is that these creative and industrious individual behaviors often sabotage the group's vitality overall. This concentration on the janmeori level may explain in part why Koreans are not generally well regarded for strategic or long-term planning. On the other hand, janmeori's positive aspects include Koreans being justifiably recognized as world-class tacticians, capable of leveraging special opportunities and/or psychologically wearing down their opponents -- often with little or no preparation.
Discussing this aspect of Korean culture with some mature Korean friends, we surmised that while this kind of behavior is common in most cultures, it is unusually strong in Korea. Our best guess why this may be so goes not so far back to when Korean life was confined to small villages and neighborhoods of larger town and cities. There was little mobility in Korean life.
Everyone knew each other in their immediate environment that they rarely ventured away. There was marginal horizontal mobility.
At the same time, by living within a strict Confucian culture, everyone knew his and her place in society. That is, there was also very little vertical mobility.
In other words, Koreans have learned to live within narrow social constraints. Naturally, most people are not satisfied with social limitations, particularly if they see others about them trying -- and succeeding -- in beating the system whenever possible. Since so many people are engaged in this kind of activity, most people are capable of getting away with various dodges, with only a few unlucky individuals getting caught and being punished.
Moxie is not traditionally considered a positive character trait in Korea. Known as "janmeori," which usually means skills to deceive or manipulate others without having to take responsibility, it implies a strong sense of chutzpah.Mr. Wook gives an example:
Interpark . . . is one of the many popular Internet shopping malls in the country. Since the "e" and the "r" are next to each other on a keyboard, a lot of people tend to accidentally transpose the two letters when they type fast, writing "intre" instead of "inter." Yet somehow they wind up at the right place. Little do they know that their poor typing skills are money in the bank for Shin Yeong-gwon, 28, owner of the "intrepark" domain name. Mr. Shin bought the rights to the domain about seven months ago. Yet instead of creating a faux online shopping mall for the typing-impaired, he approached Interpark with a proposal: he would redirect his site visitors to the real Interpark for a small fee. The shopping mall agreed to pay Mr. Shin 1 percent of the profit from each transaction logged by a customer who was redirected from his site. Mr. Shin bought the domain address for only 19,000 won ($19). He now makes 100,000 won a month off the Web site. A man who knows an easy deal when he sees one, Mr. Shin went on to buy seven more addresses similar to the Intrepark address, earning him an extra 4 million to 5 million won a year.I suppose that one could say that Mr. Shin is performing a service for Interpark, but from another perspective, he's skimming a profit from something that Interpark could have done for itself without cost if someone there had just had a bit more foresight. Moreover, the economic cost adds up if everybody is doing a bit of janmeori. Mr. Wook provides some figures for this sort of "cleverness":
To a question, "How clever are you?" only 4 percent said they don't try to rely on cleverness, but "work honestly." About 42 percent said they occasionally resort to trickery, while 17 percent said subterfuge was their standard method of operation. Asked how they used their moxie, 31 percent said they used it to goof off at work, while 26 percent said they did so to make excuses to skip group gatherings such as office parties or company picnics. "To cover up mistakes made at work," and "to get vacation time from the boss" were other common answers.As Mr. Coyner would point out, "these creative and industrious individual behaviors often sabotage the group’s vitality overall," and one can see why, for they rob the overall system of efficiency. Coyner offers as example the greatest practitioner of janmeori ever:
One may also say that janmeori is at work in North Korea at the highest levels.Absolutely right. The North Korean leadership are astonishingly adept at surviving through deploying all manner of subterfuges, and they've done brilliantly at this game, but it's mere tactics without a long-term strategy. The North has a long-term aim, of course, and that aim is to keep the nomenklatura in power. But tactics alone cannot ensure the survival of this shortsighted, inefficient juche system.
The Pyongyang ruling oligarchy has been absolutely brilliant in going it alone, playing friends and adversaries against each other, while confounding the rest of the world from a remarkably weak position.
At the same time, it is painfully obvious the North lacks a genuine, long-term survival strategy other than to continue to practice janmeori statecraft until some unforeseen miracle happens.
But the Korean people, both North and South, will certainly survive, for they've got moxie!
UPDATE: An interesting discussion of janmeori is taking place at the Marmot's Hole.