Expat Social Fallacies: Conclusions

This entry is part 6 of 6 in the series Five Expat Social Fallacies

For those just joining us, this post is part of a series. I recommend that you skip this post for the moment, and check out the menu at the bottom of the post to start reading these in order.


I’ve already traced how I think these influence interactions among expats, and between expats and Koreans, as well as generally what I think the causes and consequences are. As for what to do about these fallacies — and others, which, if you think of any, I’d appreciate you point out in the comments! — I think that, as with the Five Geek Social Fallacies, the best thing to do is to be aware of these behaviours… though, I think, pointing them out and criticizing them is worth doing too. Optimally, one might be able to say, “Hey, woah, that’s Expat Fallacy #3, pal!” in a conversation, or see these Expat Social Fallacies being copied and pasted (with a citation leading back to here) all over the blogosphere — with alterations for different countries thrown in, to boot! — but I think the systematic discussion of such behavioral patterns likely is more common among geeks that expats in Korea.

And if you feel like I’m talking about you, I might well be. I may not be. I am in part talking about myself, and have struggled with a few of these fallacies personally, and I am talking about the things I’ve seen in people I’ve known here over the years. (Longtime readers can likely identify exactly which fallacies I struggle with, as well as the other ones, which I haven’t struggled with but which annoy me to no end.)


As a rather strange and ironic lagniappe (or as Koreans call it, when they give you a free dish of food or some bottles of pop after you’ve ordered a bunch of food and drinks, “service”): go and reread those Geek Social Fallacies once more, or for the first time if you have not read them yet.

Now ask yourself, how many of these could reasonably be used to describe the norms of social interaction in South Korea?

GSF#1 (Ostracizers are Evil) doesn’t quite seem to hold in Korea, though there is an inclusiveness that certainly can stretch to the unfathomable inclusion in social outings of individuals that everyone in the group hates.

GSF#2 (Friends Accept Me As I Am) doesn’t on first blush seem to apply — since, in fact, a lot of Koreans seem to put a fair bit of energy into the work required to fit into their various prescribed social roles and groups. But if you look at the consequences of this fallacy — a hypersensitivity to criticism, for example, and conflict aversion — then one sees that there is a certain amount of GSF#2 present in normal Korean society.

GSF#3 (Friendship Before All) isn’t directly relevant as it is, but there are likely other placeholders for “friendship” that could be applied. It could be (as in Victorian England) Appearances, or it could be Work, or Family. Loyalty tests do seem common, and in fact, in some workplaces, every 12-hour workday constitutes a kind of extreme loyalty test.

GSF#4 (Friendship is Transitive) also seems inapplicable on first blush — indeed, the opposite seems true, in that when you are walking down the street with one Korean friend and run into another, as likely as not, your two friends will, unless mutually acquainted, not make much effort to acknowledge or meet one another. (Or this is my experience, and the experience of many friends.) One longterm expat in Korea actually argued that this had arisen because so often, making a new friend means having a new set of obligations, one more person who could ask you for favors, and thus making new friends was something to be avoided. Anyway, once you look at the implications and consequences, you do start recognizing things you’ve seen before in Korea: people you barely know (but who are friends of a friend) asking for favors like, say, “Could you please give my kids English lessons?” or “Would you mind editing, for free, my PhD dissertation now that it’s been horridly translated into English?” This is distinct from people who offer to way, mind you: but I will say that’s one thing that surprised me about my current workplace: people asked, and they offered to pay when making such requests. At previous workplaces, most (not all, but most!) favor-seekers made their requests with no thought of paying, or even offering a thank-you meal. The Festival Pass my wonderful friend and colleague Chullsung gave me in exchange for writing a review of the Jeonju Sori Festival one year for a magazine was the exception, not the rule.

As for GSF#5 (Friends Do Everything Together) this does seem to apply, quite straightforwardly as the norm in Korea. Group, group, group. A friend who suggests to another friend, “Hey, let’s just us two meet up this time!” as often as not is met with bafflement, or so I’ve been told time and time ago. And then there’s doing things alone, which seems to be becoming less “weird” and “unheard of” but only very slightly so, and primarily among a certain class of young people with experience abroad.

So it seems a number of GSFs are also Korean Social Fallacies. I have no theories as to why this might be, but as an ex-gamer and SF nerd, it certainly helps explain why Korean society, in some ways, seemed so utterly familiar to me from the get-go. Hmmmmmm.

As I finish this, it strikes me that probably a more entertaining way to explore this would be to dramatize it, in the form of a comedic narrative. For example, some kind of humorous radio-drama styled podcast. Or maybe I’m deluded: I’m listening to the old Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy radio drama and Douglas Adams and all  the actors make it all seem so effortless, and so powerful in satirizing bizarre habits of thought and mind.

Thinking about how so much of this could be dramatized by an audacious story of three or four foreigners and one or two Koreans who band together for their shared survival after a Zombie Apocalypse strikes Seoul. Hmmmmmmmmm. Sooooo much one could do with that. Though I’m not sure the jokes would make sense to people outside Korean. Then again, that’s what those hilarious info-dumps all through HHGG are for, and they work so well, and with such flair.

As always, comments and thoughts are welcome!

Series Navigation<< Expat Social Fallacies, Part 5

6 thoughts on “Expat Social Fallacies: Conclusions

  1. Once upon a time in Korea, a Korean friend of mine promised a business film crew that I would play the satisfied foreigner customer for their presentation.

    I told him that a) I couldn’t do the work on an E-2 visa, b) I didn’t want to do it any way, and c) I should have been asked. After a long conversation about how he made a promise, I eventually had to get hardcore and tell him “No” and hung up.

    Five minutes later, the producer of the business video called me to give me the same nonsense. They could not understand why I wouldn’t jump at the chance to do something I wasn’t asked to do that could have lost me my work visa because a friend wanted me to.

    This was the main wedge that set us on our separate ways.

    Another hammer hit on wedge came a year later when he called my up at 11pm one weekend, presumably drunk, to tell me that he was at a bar with a Korean woman who really wanted to have sex with a foreigner “And she doesn’t care that you’re fat!”

    In retrospect, I don’t know how I was able to refuse such a charming offer like that…

    But the continued impositions, and assumptions that I’d happy with those impositions made by Koreans upon me was one of the main reasons I grew to hate the place. And it’s one of the reasons I love Japan:

    People leave me the fuck alone the first time I say “No”.

  2. WG,

    Wow. That’s a lot more interesting than the crap I faced. Mostly of the “Edit my completely incomprehensible text for free.” That was one of the shocks I got when I moved to Bucheon — nobody made presumptions on my time.

    (Though another foreign teacher I knew in another department said there was a Korean guy in some third department who was pulling this crap on him. The Korean guy apparently had seen me on campus, and asked my friend for my contact info. He noted it and asked me if I was comfortable with it, which, of course, I wasn’t, and my friend refused to give my contact info, thank goodness.)

    The friend pulling the “I made a promise” thing is crazy… and yeah, I’d be dropping that friend pretty quick too. nobody promises my time away without asking me. Let alone promising me to do illegal work.

    1. Thanks, Dan. And yeah, I think these types of behaviours do relate to how people handle living with the differences in another culture — that is, what coping mechanisms they develop during the period of culture shock, and then need to overcome if they want to live healthily in the place afterward.

  3. Hey, thanks for the series! I’m planning to go to Korea next year to do some teaching (first time ever), and have been trying to soak up as much as I can about the culture and social expectations, etc. Although I wouldn’t consider myself inflexible, it sounds like it’ll be challenging, nonetheless.

  4. Becky,

    Well, the one thing I can say is: every expat seems to have opinions. Some are closer to the reality, some farther, but the reality is complex and confounds any direct attempt to define or enclose it.

    Enjoy your time here, keep the eyes open, and soak up what you like, while not wasting time on the stuff you don’t like. That’s my advice now.

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