There are situations, however, when the culture of respecting one's elders is not only a nuisance but logically ridiculous and even extremely dangerous. I was party to some information regarding the later last week and it did not surprise me one bit.
To explain this I will need to do a brief background on my wife's profession, a nurse, which she took a break from recently because of the stress of the job and to study English. There are many problems with nurses in Korea, they are well trained at university but once they start their jobs this doesn't continue, they work by routine and are encouraged not to use their brains and take any responsibility. They are servants for the doctors, the only one's that deserve respect and indeed command awe from everyone as well.
In England, nurses are required to do at least one year as a regular nurse before they can specialise, say into a surgery room nurse. This is needed because they need the experience and mentoring of older more experienced nurses and doctors in a variety of real life circumstances. Once they have the experience they would have to do further extensive training to specialise.
In Korea, a nurse needs no extra qualification to be a surgery room nurse, they are just thrown in at the deep end and criticised heavily when they make inevitable mistakes. A bit like a lowly private in the army, they have their errors forced out of them by constant pressure from superiors. Younger nurses are shouted at, ordered to make coffee, cut fruit, do all the washing-up in the staff rooms, are made to do the majority of the work, and are bullied by older nurses (on top of everything else a nurse has to do) because the respect culture gives them the right. Younger nurses fear to ask questions about procedures because of this and are also afraid to contribute their point of view in puzzling situations involving the health of patients.
With this in mind then, perhaps it is easy to understand how the following situation happened. I gained this information through a nurse working in a hospital near where I live in Korea who was a friend of my wife.
The hospital in question specialises in orthopedic medicine - basically bone and joint surgery - which has its quota of extremely over-worked nurses both in wards and in surgery rooms. I was told of a gentleman who had been anesthetised and was waiting for the doctor in the surgery room with three nurses present. The following should be worrying if you are planning an operation any time soon in Korea.
The nurses noticed on the vital signs machine that the patient's systolic blood pressure (the highest figure that is normally about 120 mmHg, diastolic is usually 80 mmHg) had fallen to just 50 mmHg. Now, anyone with even a modicum of knowledge of medicine would now know that this is very much time to take some action, if not panic. The first instinct of these nurses, though, was to assume that the machine was faulty. While they were checking the machine the patients BP was falling further, now at 40. Thinking that this might be time for the doctor to examine this anomaly they called asking for him to come to the surgery room but politely and without too much haste or urgency. By the time the doctor arrived the patient's systolic BP was now 30 mmhg, basically he was virtually dead. The doctor immediately called for support and began chest compression while others arrived and whilst screaming expletives at the nurses. The patient then went into cardiac arrest and the defibrillator was required as well as adrenaline shots to save his life.
Of the three nurses present at the scene, two were senior and one was a nurse of about 3 years experience but had only recently joined this particular hospital, so she was of a much lower status than the other two. The least experienced nurse smelled a rat immediately upon noticing the patient's blood pressure reading (she was the one telling the story) but did not say anything other than a polite inquiry to the older nurses about how they might call the doctor, which she was scorned at for mentioning. It was the older nurses who were not so concerned with the situation, the younger nurse's opinion did not count and vital minutes were lost that could have resulted in the patient's life being lost.
Once the patient was stable he was moved to a different hospital to recover and the doctors and nurses wondered what might have caused his problems. He had no prior medical complaints, no issues with his heart or lungs or any other organs. But one nurse told of a similar experience she had in another hospital of a man who had an almost identical situation because of an allergic reaction to the anesthetic they used. Upon revealing this to an older nurse, who was calling the hospital that was receiving the patient, her suggestion was laughed-off without a second thought and she was told to not be silly. Considering they still did not know the cause of the man's condition, this was irresponsible at best. This suggestion was, however, made later in the day by the older nurse, who claimed it was her idea.
Maybe it is tempting to blame stubborn older nurses - one should bear in mind that when I say 'older nurses' this can mean that they are only a few years older and there are not many nurses older than 40 years old working in Korea - but it is the culture within the hospitals of the doctors being so highly respected to the point that they do not respect the opinions of the nurses that is to blame here, and this in turn makes the nurses not respect their own opinion. This makes them less inclined to use their own initiative and think and act for themselves. It is also more than a little troubling that hardly anyone, doctors included, thought outside the box and wondered whether the anesthetic could be the cause. I would have thought that this would be a fairly obvious possibility.
From the information I have been gleaned in this case and when my wife was working, it is clear that Korea utilises nurses as more of a general dogs-body and assistant rather than a genuine medical professional, placing very little value on their position and they rank fairly low in the hierarchy at a hospital and given little respect for what they do. Is it any wonder the nurses in this situation failed so spectacularly to take responsibility and realise the gravity of the position they found themselves in.
Now, whether you believe this story or not - perhaps it was just a younger nurse embellishing things and telling a more dramatic story than what really happened and making herself look good in the process - it should be taken seriously and the logic of what is supposed to have happened fits very well with some of the issues involving respect culture in Korea.
I am inclined to believe this story just because of what I have heard before from my wife about the treatment of younger nurses in her hospital and how little regard more experienced nurses and doctors have of their rights and opinions. But there are also some other curious stories coming from other areas of life in Korea that make this so believable.
Also in the Wall Street Journal, this article highlights the headaches of respect culture on business and on the South Korean national football team before Guus Hiddink took charge prior to the 2002 World Cup. He was startled to find that younger players in his team felt obliged to pass the ball to the senior players, hampering the team's ability to improve. In business, similar problems occur with older people taking all the highest positions regardless of their qualities. Another complication is that employers are loathed to hire older people for lower positions in companies because of the discomfort people feel in being their superiors at work and ordering them around, so age discrimination is rife in Korea for this reason and many older people who are out of work find it difficult to find jobs.
For all these reasons and more then, I guess you could say I have genuine misgivings about the moral worth of respect culture in the way it is currently operating. It is not just a harmless difference between cultures it is dangerous, illogical, inefficient, causes a great deal of unhappiness and stress in some people, and a good deal of arrogance and over-confidence in others.
It is a shame some common sense can't be applied to this part of the culture because when you first come to Korea it is quite nice to see young people respecting those that are much older than them, their parents, their grandparents and their teachers. It makes for such pleasant youngsters when compared to many of the disrespectful yobs back home in England. Once someone leaves school, however, surely everyone's opinion should counted and be equally valued (in school too), and the freedom to speak out in a situation which requires it should be welcomed as heartfelt concern rather than ridiculed or despised because they disrespectfully challenged the authority, age, and position of someone else.
Make no mistake, this needs to change; it took plane crashes, a sub-standard football team, and reduced efficiency and therefore profits in business to make them realise it in these situations. What would it take to realise the effects it has in hospitals or on the population at large? A few deaths on the operating table for one and maybe some proof that the country has problems with stress and unhappiness for the other. I wonder what could show this? In case anyone doesn't know, Korea has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. I am not suggesting that respect culture is the sole cause for it but perhaps it doesn't help the situation very much. It is time for Korea to have a rethink on this particular traditional value and practice.