One Thing I’m Really Wondering

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.

8 thoughts on “One Thing I’m Really Wondering

  1. “talking with one’s hands in one’s pockets is considered rude or annoying or otherwise unattractive in Korean culture.”

    Everything is rude in Korean culture- Except them.

  2. Hello Gord,

    We just discussed this in a class last night. From my observations over the years and the comments I heard last night, I would say that your second theory, let’s call it the “Eondeol Theory,” is closest to the truth.

    As a conservationist, it worries me that many Korean folks keep windows open in cars and buildings while the heat is running. This probably made sense years ago when the eondeol was not easily regulated. Today, it is quite wasteful and contrary to Korean thriftiness.


  3. Well, I’ve noticed a few things like that. Windows and doors open in cars and buildings when the heat is on, or, in summer, when the air conditioning is blasting, not only is wasteful, but is expensive.

    There’s also the way systems are run in institutions. Heaters being shut off at night in a school closed for 8-10 hours a day is sensible. Heaters being shut off for 3 hours in the middle of the night, only to be turned on in the morning (as they routinely are dormitories and the like), in the name of “saving money”, simply makes no sense. (Same with air conditioning.) It seems thrifty, of course — but it’s actually more wasteful than leaving the system running at a low level, I’ve been told numerous times.

    Anyway… I’m curious to hear what others have to contribute. Thanks for your feedback.

  4. Oh this is one of my favourite grizzles in Korea. I’ve always felt the same as you, but you don’t know torture until you’ve had a baby in mid-summer and have been forced to endure absolutely ridiculous, and surely unhealthy temperatures.
    At times I thought I would expire from the heat in the hospital room, my baby covered in prickly heat rash. I had to plead and complain to get the aircon at a semi-reasonable level, and then spent the rest of the stay arguing with cleaners and food ladies or whoever else set foot in the room, that 24 degrees was warm enough. In fact the recommended room temperature for babies at home is 18-21 degrees.
    And THEN, going out in public, on a day where everyone is wearing short sleeves, the sun is beating down, baby and I are red in the face, and several babos per day would come rushing across the street wiping the sweat from their brow to tell me I must rug my baby up better, he looked to cold.

    I could go on and on.

    As for hands in pockets, that is rude where I come from too.


  5. Hands in pockets while talking is rude in Australia, too? I just don’t get it! Why?

    I wonder if “comfort zones” for temperature are affected much by conditioning? ie. whether babies get accustomed to the temperatures they’re exposed to early in life, and this conditions what they think is comfortable later in life? Whether this kind of thing might be the result of conditioning or something.

    As for unusual infant-care practices, all I can guess is that it’s vestiges of the “try anything” overdoing it approach that would probably have been common here 50 or 60 years ago, when infant mortality rates must have been painfully high.

  6. It’s rude because who know’s what’s going on in there! You could be playing pocketball!

    I did a google of “etiquette hands pockets”, but all I found was the Berlitz POCKET Guide saying AUSTRALIANS’ food ETIQUETTE was to eat meat and potato, and also an erroneous bit of info stating the “thumbs up” sign means “up yours” in Australia.

    But from various other websites I see:

    Germany – Chewing gum in public is not appropriate. Talking with one’s hands in the pockets is disrespectful. Pointing the index finger to one’s own head is an insult to another person.

    Japan – Never talk with your hands in your pockets.

    Indonesia – Do not crook your index finger to call someone over. This gesture is offensive. Do not put your hands into your pockets when talking with someone.

    U.S.A. – Tests have shown that hands visible, rather than in pockets, projects a more positive image. (from a business etiquette page)

    Malaysia – Keep your hands out of your pockets when in public.

    More Europe – While Danes prefer more space when talking, it’s common for Spaniards to stand very close. Don’t step back to increase the distance or they may take offense. And keep your hands out of your pockets in France, Switzerland and Sweden.

    Cambodia – When talking, take off hats and don’t put hands in pockets.

    Mexico – In Mexico, putting your hands in your pockets is considered impolite.

    Russia – do not stand with hands in pockets.

    :) mer

  7. Huh. I was talking with a Canadian friend and the notion came up that, well, in Canada we have some bloody cold weather, which we thought might explain why Canadians seem okay with hands-in-pockets. But the note regarding Russia makes me wonder about whether that’s true. Then again, if thumbs-up is falsely listed as insulting in Australia, maybe some of these other things are off, too.

    So very weird.

  8. As Peter Haubner says, “Ah, it’s on the internet so this MUST be true!”

    Thinking about the cold weather, thinking about my own anti-hands-in-pocket sensibilities, if I were talking to someone and he was wearing a big coat, and was kind of hunched over and had hands stuffed in pockets, it wouldn’t seem rude, he would just seem cold. But a person dressed lightly, kind of lolling about, hands in pockets seems…I dunno, surly? untrustworthy? lazy? definitely dodgy.

    Anyway, enough from me on the pockets.

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