I don’t mean to be nasty about this. I really am wondering. So are most of the people I work with, and most of the foreigners I know personally in Korea. So if anyone can offer me some explanation, it would be very nice.
I have found that that during the summer months, Koreans’ sense of a comfortable working temperature is, in general, on average, close to my sense of a comfortable working temperature. Sometimes I’ve preferred it a little cooler, and sometimes it has been Koreans I’ve worked with who preferred their office environment a little cooler than my preferences. However, usually it’s been pretty close, close enough for comfort.
The winter, it seems, is a completely different matter. Now, I’d gotten a sense of this simply by living here. Take a bus anywhere in the winter, and you’ll wish you’d dressed for a vacation in Thailand; same goes for the trains… public transportation is so hot, with so little air circulation, that even the Korean passengers are mostly sweating — even though they’ve got their jackets zipped to the top, and nobody’s complaining to the driver. I swear, there have been times when it’s felt like going to a sauna. Likewise, walking into offices with Korean staff and no foreigners in the room: it’s usually so hot that opening the door, you get hit by a hot blast that starts you sweating immediately.
This has been, relatively speaking, fine: I’ve found ways to deal with it, in other words: dress for the hot bus, and simply make sure I know what I need before I go into any main office, so as to minimize my time there. (I prefer not to mention that in my opinion it’s ridiculously hot in the office, because, even if it is, it’s their work environment, not mine, and I would hate for people who don’t need to work in my work environment come in, complain, and put the onus on me to make it comfortable for them for the few minutes they’re there. Even if it’s environmentally bad as a practice, it’s not for me to call a whole bunch of my co-workers on that, at least not on my own.)
But for the first time since the major reorganization, the office where I work has a split down the middle, with Korean staff on one side, and foreign staff (the majority of the room) on the other. This has complexified things in ways I could never have imagined before.
For example, it seems to me a little more troublesome when foreign teachers in my office do the normal, everyday criticism and venting that goes along with being a foreigner in a country that’s sometimes challenging to live in. The less carefully phrased the criticism, the more potentially offensive it is to people who are, now, just on the other side of the office, definitely in earshot.
But I’ll leave that can of worms mostly-shut for now, and focus on the main question I wanted to ask: why is it that, whilst we all had a relatively similar comfort-zone for office temperature five months ago, now the difference is a whole 4 to 5 degrees celcius, or even more? I don’t understand why 22 or 24 degrees was a comfortable office temperature for people in suits in June, or August, or September, but for people in suits in mid-November, the comfortable office temperature is now somewhere around 28 degrees celcius, and a hot 28 at that. I am seriously asking.
Now, I do have one half-baked theory as to why this might make sense. A lot of the foreigners — myself included — are naturally heavier than our Korean co-workers. A few years ago, when I lost a lot of weight, I found myself much less bothered by the thermostat shenanigans of bus drivers and main-office secretaries. Losing weight made me more sensitive to cold, and less sensitive to heat. So this is, at least in part, a possible reason for the difference.
The hole in this theory is that there are plenty of slim foreigners who also find the Korean-set temperatures a little too high. I don’t think they’re quite as bothered by it — I’m the one opening the window or turning the heat down — but they do notice it and think it odd, or at least the ones I’ve talked with do.
The other thing I’ve observed is that some Koreans seem to go to extremes with temperature as a kind of palliative measure. When it’s raining, they think it’s cold for some reason. Even if it’s the middle of a hot day in summer, if it begins to rain, they think it’s suddenly cold. I had a conversation with a friend — Seong Hwan, from my old band days — who insisted it was cold one time when it began to rain, even though everyone else in the car still felt uncomfortable from the heat. Seong Hwan is one anecdote, I know, but I also have had other experiences — mainly classrooms with the heat turned on in the summertime because of rain, classrooms that (because of the way students — adults and children alike — cranked up the thermostats) were ridiculously hot and unsuitable for breathing in, let alone teaching.
I have a second theory, which is that Koreans get accustomed to this kind of room temperature in the winter because they conventionally heat their homes a lot more than Westerners do in the winter. That is to say, while in many Westerners’ homes, it’s not quite comfortable in December to walk about in bare feet, many Koreans keep their homes warm enough to wear light clothing and lounge about. I base this on the fact that, for the number of Koreans I know who enjoy sleeping on eondeol floors — the floors heated from below by hot water pipes — keeping the house at a lower temperature would make it very much less uncomfortable for sleeping. I know this because I, too, sleep on the floor, and since I began doing so, I also began heating my living space more than I used to do.
The other theory I have, which is weak but is a reflection of my own relationship with the thermostat, is that perhaps something to do with the office pecking order is involved. If an older, or senior, member of the office team turns the thermostat up to 28 degrees, does this mean that a younger person cannot (or ought not to) turn it down? What about if the senior person leaves for a class?
I don’t know if theorizing such a concern for pecking order is my own hyperactive imagining of Korean office life and hierarchical thinking — I wouldn’t be surprised if it was — but I do know that for my own part, I have a less-hierarchical, more consideration-based analogue of the same anxiety. If someone else who is already on my side of the office has the heat up a little higher than I like, I try not to turn it down without asking if it’s okay. Likewise, I think (I think!) everyone on my side of the room, Korean or foreign, tries to use the same kind of courtesy to implicitly negotiate the comfortable office temperature. This means the numbers change a lot, continually. I bet you could probably track staffs’ on- and off-days by tracking the thermostat numbers. Whereas, on the mainly-Korean side of the office, it seems to me to have been 28 every time I’ve looked at it. Can it be that everyone on that side of the room agrees on exactly the same comfortable temperature?
I don’t know if these questions come off as insulting, but I don’t mean them that way, and I honestly would like to hear some opinions, so if you have one, please feel free to fire away. Office temperature is hardly likely to result in any kind of hostility in the office, but it’s one of those little unusual things that I have never quite understood and feel, at the moment, curious about.
Also, a co-worker told me that in a book he’d skimmed, it was claimed that talking with one’s hands in one’s pockets is considered rude or annoying or otherwise unattractive in Korean culture. Is this really the case? In almost four years I’ve never heard such a thing.