One of the interesting things about expats in Korea, and one’s interactions with Koreans, is how some things about Korean society can be so baffling to one. For example, if you look at the comments to this post at Gusts of Popular Feeling (to which comments thread I have contributed a lot, and contributed more today, though they may not show up for a few days, or completely) you’ll see “The Korean” presenting his argument as to why, though he thinks the older woman was out line for pushing things to the point they reached, the younger woman was at fault for the altercation — and why he thinks the older woman had the right to slap the girl for speaking in “banmal,” a form of address in Korean that is appropriate to peers, close friends, and sometimes to family, but not to elders and strangers.
He makes the point that Westerners–or at least, the Anglophone commenters on the post–just don’t get it about “banmal.” The Anglos commenting there tend not to be very interested in that distinction. As you can see, I take a slightly different tack, suggesting that using “respect” is a misuse of the word when applied to the kind of attitude that The Korean is advocating is normative in Korean society between older and younger.
It seems to me “deference” is much more fitting, since “respect,” as an English word, carries a lot more egalitarian overtones today; it is not one-sided, it does not flow simply from older to younger, it is contextual, and one is not obligated to extend it to someone simply on the basis of the other’s birth year in relation to one’s own. Indeed, the Anglophone concept of respect is much more fluid, flexible, and responsive to circumstantial specifics than the deference to elders that the commenter The Korean is talking about.
The question, though, is why the concept of deference is so much of a turnoff to so many North Americans. After all, I’ve commented before that it seems North Americans seem simply not to have in their “social equipment” something that many Koreans seem to have, which takes the form of a learned capacity to just shut up and defer to older people on the basis of age, and/or voice volume, even when they’re idiots… we may bow out, we may mock, we may ignore, but we tend not to defer. Perhaps I am more defiant than some, but in general I think we perceive deferring to someone we personally consider wrong, mistaken, or even an idiot, as an act of cowardice. The thought of such a deference makes our skin crawl, for all kinds of reasons.
This is not to say that we Anglos are all hellbent on dominance, of course. We love it when we argue with people who stick to their guns–as long as they are doing their best to be sane and reasonable and rational. (We don’t love talking to people who lie, cheat, prevaricate, or simply reject the point of any discussion, but we can agree to disagree, even when we disagree every strongly. And age has very little to do with how we present that disagreement.)
Well, as discussed in a great article over at the Tufts Magazine website (and another article at the APA website) what scientists are discovering about how culture impacts the brain–brain plasticity and how culture shapes it–offers an interesting picture of why this fundamental disjunction of attitudes and perceptions might have come to be. Japanese and American test subjects showed very different neurological reactions to the same business leaders: Japanese preferred leaders with “warm” faces, while Americans preferred those with “powerful” faces. Which raises the question (and the emphasis here is mine, but the text is from the first article linked above):
… what accounts for strong differences in preferences, leading to very different actions in the real world?
Part of the answer might lie in a similar set of studies done by Freeman. He measured the brainwaves of American and Japanese subjects who were shown silhouettes of bodies in postures categorized as “dominant” and “subordinate” (for example, one of someone standing tall with arms crossed and another of someone with head bowed and arms hanging). “It’s been known for a long time that Western cultures encourage dominance and Japanese cultures more subordination in line with collectivist thinking,” Freeman says. “I was looking to see if these East Asians and Westerners perceive dominant and subservient bodies in a different way.”
The results, published in the journal Neuroimage in April 2009, indicate that here, too, people often travel the same route yet end up at destinations miles apart. The silhouettes matching cultural preferences activated another distinct area of the brain in both groups: the limbic reward system. This is the system that releases dopamine into the bloodstream in response to pleasurable stimuli such as drugs, sex, or food. But it’s also engaged whenever the brain wants to tell the body to go after something in the outside world—to pick up a desired cup of coffee or grab a favorite magazine off the rack.
“I found that dominant bodies activated this classic kind of reward circuitry in Westerners and subordinate bodies activated the same reward circuitry for Japanese people,” says Freeman. What’s more, the magnitude of the limbic response corresponded nearly exactly to the subjects’ responses to questionnaire statements about their level of dominance in the world (“I want to control the conversation” and “I am not afraid of providing criticism”). “So if I’m an American, the more dominant I behave in the real world, the more my brain activates the reward regions when thinking about dominance,” Freeman says.
While it’s impossible to rule out genetic differences between races to explain these differences in brain function, evidence increasingly points to culture as the deciding factor. Ambady and Bharucha both caution that further studies are needed—perhaps involving adopted children or immigrants—to determine exactly where genetics ends and culture begins. The most recent studies in the field, however, have already begun to show how malleable the structure of the brain is in response to cultural stimuli.
This has some pretty stunning implications, of course, in terms of how it affects the lives of immigrant people in both directions–Asians going to the West, and Westerners going to Asia. (I don’t know enough about different African and South Asian cultural structure to say anything about that.) It would explain why Westerners have such trouble dealing with the hierarchic, deference-based social organization of a number of Northeast Asian societies, particularly the more strict ones in Korea and Japan. It’s not just that deference isn’t part of the social equipment for a Westerner, but rather that the expectation that one be deferential, and the witnessing of all this deference around oneself, probably does promote a specific, and likely unpleasant, neurological reaction. After all, we’re wired not only to not feel so great about deference ourselves, but we’re also, perhaps, wired to distrust it in others (because in part we model our understanding of others’ actions on how we imagine the emotional or strategic impetus to take those actions).
At the same time, it might explain why (as many Koreans who’ve gone abroad and returned, Korean-Americans, and expats from these places have claimed to me, and as I experienced in at least one case) Korean expatriate communities in places like the US, UK, and Indonesia are so notoriously self-isolative, interacting less with non-Koreans than most other groups: their wiring, after all, isn’t really set up such that they’re going to fit right in; they’re programmed, in fact, to act in ways that will deprivilege them in a dominance-favoring society. (And this may go some ways to explaining the kind of negative stereotypes that have accrued around the Asian-American male, for example, as well as the more ambiguously exotic notions lots of westerners have about “deference” in Asian women.)
As well, it likely explains why there is such conflict in Asian-American literature between parents and children who are growing up as natives of the Western culture to which the parents transplanted themselves: the literary pattern here does seem, in my experience, to reflect a real life familial tension, but what’s interesting is that this tension has to do with the way the brain is wired through a decade or two of social experience. (Presumably kids homeschooled by first-generation Korean-Australian, or Chinese-American, or Japanese-Canadian parents and exposed less to that Western society in general would tend to have wiring similar to their parents, while kids out in school and having a normal North American social life would be wired in a way that would conflict with the way their parents are wired.)
And that’s the interesting thing: it seems to be wiring, resulting from cultural experience, that makes it so hard to get a handle on certain aspects of one anothers’ cultures. This is comforting as one considers, as I have been doing lately, how very hard it can be for some of us expatriates to be really happy in a society like Korea’s.
Interestingly, one of the few Westerners I know who’s been here long enough for the first few years of fun and adventure to give way to frustration, reacted to this story (when I mentioned it to him) in terms of wondering to what degree he’d rewired himself over many years in Korea, and wondering how it boded for his readjustment to some English-speaking society, if and when he eventually repatriates or, at least, leaves Korea.
There are implications for Korean society to mull over, too. For example, from the second article I linked above (but here’s the link again):
Northwestern University’s Joan Chiao, PhD, for example, has found that people who live in collectivist cultures are more likely than those in individualistic cultures to have a form of the serotonin transporter gene — the S-allele — that correlates with higher rates of negative affect, anxiety and depression.
In contrast to what you might expect from the genes alone, she also found that people from collectivist societies are less likely to be depressed. This suggests that collectivism, which tends to produce lower levels of negative affect, may have co-evolved with the S-allele, says Chiao, who published her findings in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of Biological Science (Vol. 277, No. 1,681). In other words, she explains, societies of people with the S-allele developed a collectivist culture that reduced stress and, therefore, risk of depression by emphasizing social harmony and social support.
“Culture may make us rethink the role of this serotonin transporter physiology,” says University of Michigan neuroscientist Israel Liberzon, MD. “If it’s very common in East Asian groups, but the prevalence of depression is not higher, it somehow interacts with their lives differently.”
Which is a very pretty sounding story, until you notice that those collectivist societies, like Korea and Japan, are leading the world in suicide rates, in youth suicide, and in celebrity suicide. (Wikipedia even has an article on Suicide in Korea, it’s such a big issue.) Likely, shifts in the way collectivism is performed in daily life have something to do with this: while Korean society prides itself on traditions and conservativism and its cultural uniqueness, many people seem more than anything to live the epitome of the modern urban nightmare: crammed into a box, working a job they don’t care about, commuting for hours, not knowing their neighbors. If B.R. Myers’ comment is brought to mind about how North Korean propaganda looks less like a Communist state’s propaganda than a fascist state trying to fake being communist, I think the same could be true for urban South Koreans’s traditionalism, and especially “jeong” or “social harmony” (if we must translate it): as The Joshing Gnome argues, it seems almost absent from most interactions, thus the object of constant fetishization.