Monthly Archive: July 2009

The Geography of Thought (Continued)

This book was a struggle for me, partly because I had so much trouble determining what it was that I was reacting to in Nisbett's arguments. A summary follows of the book's position from page 100:

"To the Asian, the world is a complex place, composed of continuous substances, understandable in terms of the whole rather than in terms of the parts, and subject more to collective than to personal control. To the Westerner, the world is a relatively simple place, composed of discrete objects that can be understood without undue attention to context, and highly subject to personal control. Very different worlds indeed."

His fundamental position that Asians and Westerners think differently is surely not controversial, but, in my opinion, he takes things way too far. What Westerner would really say that the world isn't complex? Or that we don't need to understand the whole? Even if we allow for being categorical like this, I really wonder if the basic reasons listed by Nisbitt are valid. For example,  he says that the differences go back directly to the founding of the respective civilizations in Greece and China and explains how each civilization represented the above stereotypes down through the ages. But is this true? Or did he just pick examples that proved his points? 

7-30-2009 1-46-42 PM Indeed, in some cases, his examples prove his points. For example, at one point he says that Anglo-American scholars don't tend to create broad-ranging theories, whereas those from German and Russia do. But this is silly in the extreme. Has he never heard of John Locke, Adam Smith or Charles Darwin?

I'm inclined to regard many of the social phenomena which he discusses as being due primarily to more recent events. As an example, Nisbett supposes that a historic lack of debate in Korean society is what led to making the discussion of N. Korea illegal in S. Korea until recently since S. Koreans, based on their lack of experience debating, don't believe correct ideas will necessarily win out in the marketplace of ideas. But isn't it simpler to just blame this policy on the self-serving orders of the S. Korean dictators of the 60's, 70's and 80's, rather than on some fundamental character trait of Koreans? The Koreans I know are quite good at arguing and we see it also in the mass social demonstrations against the government throughout the 20th century and even into recent years.

I found it a little too convenient that the author portrays differences in thought processes as being polar opposites, as if these matters always exist on a linear continuum. And some of the author's comments about how language influences thought didn't always square with Korean grammar as I know it, which made me wonder if he was occasionally misinformed on the facts. It's not that he didn't have plenty of input from Asian colleagues, but perhaps they were also too eager to jump on the bandwagon of describing the thought processes of a bipolar world. 

That said, I did end up the book with a grudging respect for Nisbett's identification of different thought processes of Asians and Westerners and, as long the reader takes some of the more profound insights with a grain of salt, there is a lot to learn about how people in the two cultures tend to think.

The Geography of Thought

I month or so ago I attended a meeting of AMCHAM (the American Chamber of Commerce in Korea) in Seoul where they were having a panel discussion about how advertising works in Korea, having brought in three Koreans and one American working at advertising agencies in Seoul. Since one of my main areas of interest is the issue of how non-Korean firms can succeed at entering the Korean market, I went to learn some insights into the types of approaches foreign companies would need to take when advertising to Koreans.

It was an interesting discussion and I stood up to ask why the following seemed to be so characteristic of advertisements in Korea:

  1. The extreme use of celebrities to endorse products, many of them far outside any area in which they could claim expertise, and how a certain few celebrities seem to take a disproportionate share of the limelight at any given time.
  2. The repeated themes of nationalism (which I wish I had phrased as "patriotism"), such as when the recent economic hard times hit, many chaebol hit the airwaves with feel-good messages about how far Korea had come in such a short time and how they would overcome the current challenges too.
  3. The apparent unspoken rule against negative advertising of any type.

The panelists didn't dispute my observations and commented that these characteristics typify advertising in Japan and China, too. It was noted that the nationalistic themes are less pronounced now than they used to be. And the usual group-think explanation was also mentioned.

And one panelist recommended I read the book The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently… and Why by Richard Nisbitt, asserting that it has profound insights into the differences between cultures which can explain many differences, too.

7-22-2009 3-46-36 PM

I purchased the book and just started reading it this week, and I'm finding myself with strong opinions already about some of his observations. Look for my further ideas in an upcoming post.

The Use of Chinese Characters in Korean Writing

I recently prepared a short video for my translation agency clients. These clients make up a large segment of my business and I maintain a personal relationship with many project managers at dozens of agencies around the world. Considering this, it was a good chance to try out a new, more informal, approach to video production. The following video is my first attempt and several people have commented that the video is too shaky and "homemade". Still, the message is clear and relevant to someone who needs to understand this stuff in daily interactions with clients.


I hope you find this information interesting and helpful. I'll be keen on receiving any feedback readers have about the video.

A Rundown on Korean Corporate Structure

The following snippet is now part of the ebook Korean Business Etiquette Guide: Take an Essential Step Toward Your Business Goals in Korea! 

Purchase and download on Amazon.

7-26-2012 1-46-02 AM

From the extra reading in Chapter 1 of Korean Business Etiquette Guide: Take an Essential Step Toward Your Business Goals in Korea!

"Korean corporate structure is a reflection of Korean society — in other words, highly centralized and very hierarchical. In fact, the Korean "chaebol" or large business conglomerate is considered to be similar to the Japanese "keiretsu" with the primary differences being that Korean chaebols tend to still be controlled by the founding family with ownership centralized while Japanese keiretsu tend to be controlled by groups of professional managers with overall ownership more decentralized. Furthermore, Korean chaebols often create subsidiaries to act as their suppliers while their Japanese counterparts often use outside subcontractors as their suppliers."

Get the rest of this article in Korean Business Etiquette Guide: Take an Essential Step Toward Your Business Goals in Korea!

Misusing Korean

During my years in Korea, the most embarrassing language situations have
occurred when I’ve misused the honorif
ic forms. Of course, I’ve spoken 존대말 (respectful form of Korean) to children more times than I can count
and from time-to-time, I’ll say a little
반말 (low form of Korean)  to adults. Usually I can fix the
issues with the adults pretty quickly, but the kids always start laughing immediately
and any attempt to fix it is “too little, too late”.

Here are a couple specific situations that had me grimacing long after
the events recounted. It takes a little Korean knowledge to understand exactly what I did wrong, but the main error is that I referred to myself in the respectful form, which is something one should never do. The characters in red font indicate the grammatical tag which I added but shouldn't have.


  • Many years ago, I was having trouble with my computer and called in to
    LG technical support for someone to come out and get it running for me. I was
    pretty upset, and in the process of my pushing them to send out a technician
    quickly, the customer service representative asked me if I really needed to use
    the computer or not, to which I replied in a loud voice, “
    컴퓨터가 얼마나 필요하 몰라요!”… It was only later when my wife told me
    what I’d done wrong that I realized how silly I must have sounded. 
  • More recently, I was at
    the hospital for an x-ray and as I entered the exam room, the nurse asked me if
    I spoke Korean (a rather common question for me!), to which I replied, “
    , 한국말 .” I caught myself quickly,
    but not before she’d replied with a sly smile, “
    , 한국말 하시는군요!”… I felt pretty stupid.

Obama Talks about Korea

It has been striking how often President Obama has mentioned the acheivements of Korea in his public speeches recently. 

First there was his comment in April about how US kids need to study as many hours as Koreans in order to increase their test scors. Then last month, he explained that the example of Korea and Japan provides that it is possible to preserve one's culture and achieve fast economic growth at the same time.

And just this week, while at the G8 Summit in Italy, President Obama referred once again to the achievements of Korea in comparison with Africa, saying that 50 years ago, Korea was poorer than Kenya but that today, Korea is a rich country while Kenya is still poor. He explained that African nations should learn from the Korean example.

Comments like this make Koreans very proud, and rightly so. Understanding what Korea has achieved economically in the past half-century is a good starting point for appreciating the potential of business in Korea and with Koreans. Bringing up subjects like this in conversion with Korean can generate a lot of goodwill, too.

Korea, Our Country (우리나라)

In my masters degree studies at Hanyang University, I have recently selected my "guide professor" (or 지도교수), who will be my mentor in completing my thesis. Professor Seo studied for his doctorate in France, specializing in the area of corporate innovation. It's really quite an interesting subject and his class last year was one of the best I've had at Hanyang University. His focused teaching method, obvious concern for his students and interesting area of speciality were all key reasons I chose to study under him.

As part of my preparation for learning about his expertise, I asked him to point me toward some of the papers he has written for various academic journals and when I went to his office, he handed over about ten for me to review during my summer vacation. It's going to be interesting to understand his perspective about corporate innovation and how it applies to the Korean business scene.

But as I began reading, the first thing that struck me from was not the innovation-related content of the papers, but the repeated references to "our country" (Korean: 우리나라) when referring to Korea. I've seen this many times before in Korean writing, so I don't mean to say Professor Seo's style is different than the norm, but that's my point. When Koreans speak and write about Korea amongst themselves, regardless of whether in common speech, in business or in high-level academics, they ordinarily refer to Korea as "our country". 

This tells me two things. First, Koreans writing in Korean don't expect non-Koreans to be an audience for what they write. Second, Koreans have quite a strong sense of belonging to "their country". 

It's never bothered me that I'm not able to identify with the Korean psyche in that way, but it does make it impossible for me to write in a fully Korean way, since even if I write in Korean, I can't use the phrase "our country". 

Perhaps, if we assume few people will read my Korean writing outside of Korea, I should use the phrase "your country" (Korean: 여러분들의 나라) instead? I think that would sound very strange. Probably I just have to say "Korea", but it is another good example of how Korean society is never fully penetrable by non-Koreans, and something that foreign businesspeople must keep in mind.

Meeting the Governor

We had a very interesting meeting with Kim Moon-Soo, Governor of Kyunggi-Do last Saturday evening. Several things stand out in my mind from the event.

1. Having gone to meet the Governor based on some small talk with him about me being a promotional representative for the province over a year ago after he spoke to a meeting of Hanyang University alumni, it was interesting to see how my associate hooked in a presentation of his other business, and even invited yet another business associate who also appealed to the Governor for assistance on his business, all the while insisting that we were together one and the same organization. And this all came about because a business associate of my business associate is friends with the younger sister of the Governor's wife!

2. I was surprised at how gracious the Governor was for our visit. We had assumed that we would get just enough time to present our situations briefly and then it would be over…15 minutes, maybe 30 minutes tops… But as it turned out, we spoke to his wife for about 45 minutes before he arrived as he was coming from a dinner meeting and then, starting around 9:45pm on a Saturday night, he gave us a full hour of his time. In particular, as the meeting went from the expected (to talk about my possible role promoting the province) to the unexpected (my colleague's request for intervention on their business approval), to the really unexpected (my colleague's colleague's request for the Governor's support in attracting a musical event to the province), he listened very patiently and interrupted very little. At times, he asked carefully what exactly it was he could do to help and gave clear indication about how and when he (or his office) would follow up.

3. The upshot from my side of the meeting is that his office is going to contact me at the end of August after my trips to the US and India to discuss the possibilities and he even mentioned that there are many areas in which we should be able to work together. He seemed duly impressed with my Korean ability and long-term living in the province of Kyunggi.

4. Even once the meeting was over, the Governor spent a good 5-10 minutes distributing various literature to our group, signing for each of us a book he's written, etc. And as we were going out at almost 11pm, we noticed that he had yet another group of people waiting to talk to him! It made me wonder how tedious it must be to be constantly appealed to for this or that "opportunity".

Stay tuned to find out where this "opportunity" leads.