What Happens When You Ask Assholes to Be Polite (In Yeokgok, At Least), And How to Get Better at Doing It

I swore to myself that I wouldn’t write bitching rants about Korea anymore, since they do nobody any good. So… I’m not. You might think I am, below, but stick with me: it comes around.

Miss Jiwaku and I had a pretty nice day out today… well, mostly.

(We saw the only decent film playing in a 5km area of our home, which was Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and, well, I have to say: there’s no point in watching a good film — something without a techno music soundtrack, or a plotline even a monkey could follow — in a CGV cinema in Korea. Inevitably, the people who sit behind you will be eating giant tubs of popcorn, chewing with their mouths open, and cell phones will ring, and so on. I actually had to turn around and tell someone to shut up, but that’s par for the course in a CGV I guess.)

But when we got back to Yeokgok, we ended up going to a small place in the neighborhood which has great mung bean pancakes (nokdu bindaetteok) and decent rice beer (makkeoli). The problem was, half the groups in the place were couples, and quiet; the other half were insanely, atorciously loud. Like, way beyond the level of what you would excuse for a group of people drinking and having fun.

Miss Jiwaku and I put up with it until we left, at which point I politely told the one remaining loud group that they were annoying the other customers, and asked, could they be quiet, for the sake of those people?

They apologized, and then started talking shit to me — what we in the English speaking world call the non-apology apology. Sorry, but we’re drinking so we’re loud, so what?

The problem is,  I’ve spent most of my time in Korea quietly putting up with shit from strangers, so I’m not used to pushing people to be polite. (Also, since nice people here almost never say anything to call assholes on their behaviour, they’re not used to it, and so more average people end up acting in ways that would be “brazen asshole” in Canadian terms.) So after a little shit talk, I got pissed off and started cursing them out, which is the wrong approach, I know. Utter politeness is a much more powerful tool in dealing with people when you’re asking them to behave decently in public, for the sake of others.

(Even though, as Miss Jiwaku pointed out, the girl who criticized my use of the F-word was the same one who’d been shouting the Korean equivalent at the top of her lungs for over an hour, in every possible instance. That shut her up… for about half a second.)

But as I say, I’ve spent a decade quietly doing nothing while people act like absolute dickheads in my presence. So I’m not used to the blowback, and I didn’t keep my cool. The reason the interaction went badly is not because of the assholes — though these kids were certifiable assholes — but because I’m not used to standing up to asshole strangers in public. You’d think I would have stumbled upon it, except I suppose I was so busy conforming to Korean social norms… which seems to involve a lot more putting up with crap from strangers than I ever had to do in Canada, though I’m not sure it’s not just a greater abundance of assholes here. (Miss Jiwaku noted that the last time she politely asked someone to be polite in public, the reaction was over the top too.)

The solution to my own problem in handling the reaction is simple: I need some practice. So I am going to call people on their shit, directly, every time I am confronted with it, from now until we leave. It’s a form of exercise, something way out of my comfort zone… but like exercise, I think it will be good for me.

My goal is that, when we’re leaving Korea, I’m going to be as cool as Rube from Dead Like Me, when he stood up to that rude-as-hell woman in the post office:

I could beat myself up over it, but that kind of cool takes practice. Still… that’s how I’m going to be, when it comes time for us to leave Korea. Thankfully, it’s a skill I’m pretty sure I won’t need half as badly if we end up in a halfway decent place… but hey, still a nice skill to have, since there are assholes everywhere. (Not as thick on the ground as in Yeokgok, maybe, but they do have ’em everywhere.)

11 thoughts on “What Happens When You Ask Assholes to Be Polite (In Yeokgok, At Least), And How to Get Better at Doing It

  1. Will you forgive me if I confess that I’m suddenly filled with the urge to wind you up, strap a web-cam to your head, and set you loose?

    “I’m Canadian, so I know polite. And all Canadians grow up living next door to America, so I also know asshole. And you, sir, are an asshole.”

  2. You know, I was actually thinking it would make a really interesting project to videorecord a bunch of such confrontations, and put them on Youtube. Though, of course, with a camera running I think most of the assholes would suddenly moderate their behaviour. Maybe if I got Miss Jiwaku to do the recording off to the side, where they wouldn’t notice it right away. Hmm. Also very good way of training myself to keep my cool.

    (A thought that occurred to me mainly because I’m pretty sure none of the assholes videorecorded, but I’m not 100% sure.)

    Ha, we have assholes in Canada too, though now that you bring a funny experience that… aw, screw it, I’ll just blog it.

  3. You could act like an investigative reporter. “Hi, I’m studying the local culture. Most of the people in this restaurant are trying to have a nice, quiet meal, but you guys are making enough noise to keep the whole street awake. Can I interview you to learn why you think being an asshole is acceptable behavior?”

  4. John,

    Well, I’m aware of the tensions between Hong Kong and Mainland Chinese, but I don’t see more than a tenuous link between that and the percentage of Koreans who behave like assholes in Korea. It might be different if I were complaining about Koreans doing so in, say, a quiet pub in Vancouver — though I suspect they would be asked to be quiet, or rather, that they wouldn’t go to such a place when a loud, noise-filled, crammed “Korean” place elsewhere existed — but I don’t see the link here.


    That’s a brilliantly hilarious approach. We may try it. The difficulty here is that most people would not perceive the behaviour as “assholish” exactly. As I’ve spent years trying to understand, many people here seem to equate loud, noisy shouting in a small space with fun, plain and simple. (I’m told that Chinese in pubs in China are even louder, but can’t speak from experience, not having much there. The only place I recall clearly was a Belgian beer place in Hong Kong (which isn’t exactly like the rest of urban China anyway); it was quiet but then Belgian beer places are elite and tend to be quieter in general everywhere I’ve been.)

    Still, that is an approach that highlights the presence of a videocamera, and holds back the one-two punch until the end. The trick, of course, is to walk up to them with a videocamera. In the cases where it shuts people up, hooray, no confrontation. In the cases where it doesn’t, there is uploadable content. And hell, I can even argue the camera is self-defensive: while I’ve been threatened by strangers in Korea many times, very few people are willing to assault someone (or otherwise misbehave, by Korean terms) while someone is pointing a holding a video camera at them.

    EDIT: I should also note, I often use my iPhone’s videocamera function to shame people who stare at us or insult us on subways or, less often, on buses. I turn on the camera and ask them why they’re staring at me. They usually refuse to acknowledge it, but also stop staring.


  5. The link is that it happens “everywhere.” Even within the same races and cultures.
    Basically, there are a lot of loud, foul-mouthed jerks everywhere, and there’s not a place on Earth where we can get away from it/them.

  6. Well, John, I obviously realize that from my second post — the one about asshole Canadians here.

    But that’s enough of a generalization that it makes me want to ask the question I keep avoiding: why was running into an asshole a once-a-year event in places like Saskatoon or Montreal or Iksan or even Jeonju (or, when I was working retail/service in Canada, maybe once a month) whereas in Seoul it seems to me to be a constant occurrence, pretty much every time I leave my home?

    Seems to me it’s because people who behave badly seem almost never to get called on it here. (Which seems to be the same root as the netizen outpourings of hatred for said people, Dog Poop Girl being one of the most famous examples but far from the only one.)

    As for Hong Kong, I am not that’s a case of a common culture: Hong Kong Chinese are culturally very different, aren’t they? The norms are more like those in the Anglophone world, due to a long British occupation, whereas the Mainland is not. (But also, it’s not the true elite from China who are pissing off the Hong Kong people, I suspect; the last big outburst seemed to be directed at people who were eating ramen on the subway, which I sincerely doubt any of my Chinese exchange students would have done; even the least stellar of them had better common sense than that.)

  7. Hmmm….

    I’m thinking back to when Sturdy Helpmeet and I were in Jamaica, and one day we did some nature tourism that involved a long bus ride into the forest. On that bus was a group of people who I want to say were from New Jersey, maybe New York or Philadelphia. Anyway, they were loud talkers, and had strong New England accents, and their joking and fooling around drove me absolutely up the wall. They weren’t being malicious, I don’t think, but I do remember thinking that they seemed to think the poverty of Jamaica was a source of amusement. Or maybe it was just astonishment at witnessing a degree of poverty they’d never seen before, but my irritation at their volume and their accents made me think the worst of them.

    Anyway, now that I’ve remembered that, I want to ask if the people you’re finding so obnoxious lately happen to have that little something extra…some accent or mannerism or social marker that, when combined with loud garrulousness, just makes them exponentially worse than they might otherwise seem?

  8. Hmmm, well, I’d have to say, not really. They’re often younger Koreans, but sometimes older ones. (And I find those few Westerners I run across who behave the same way tend to piss me off too, and they also tend to be young, but aren’t always.)

    But I will add that I also am just as annoyed at middle-aged guys and women who insist on standing one inch behind me on a subway platform and shouting into their phones. So it’s not just crotchety anti-youing sentiment on my part, I think.

    That said, the groups I find least tolerable are… er, “peer” groups. That is, while Korea’s very groupish, the groups tend to (a) include peers from classes or clubs or whatever, and (b) therefore involve large numbers of people with nothing in common. Sometimes that’s cool, but often, eventually, they run out of stuff to talk about, and start in on the hammering back liquor and loudly shouting stupid jokes (that even I can understand) at one another across a table.

    (Which is to say, they come across as a very boring and shallow people who are, nonetheless, bent on imposing their boring shallow talk on everyone around them. If it was people arguing about something interesting, I might not mind so much, but it’s usually gossip about schoolmates and TV stars and the like that I overhear.)

    This is of course not universal here, but it’s widespread enough that I never thought of it as a distinguishing point. Not sure it qualifies anyway, given how common it is, but… well, there you go.

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