Saturday, December 7, 2013

The Necessity of Lying in Korea

Picture by  Stepher Uhlmann (

One of my favourite writers and speakers currently is the neuro-scientist and philosopher Sam Harris.  In his most recent book, "Lying", he sets-out his case that the world, and indeed our individual lives, would be much better if we dispensed with the fibs and were just honest in almost every situation.  He gives some examples of when lying might be necessary, but they mainly involve situations that could result in violence and therefore lying then becomes a means of self-defense (I will let you imagine some scenarios).

I personally agree with him, we would undoubtedly be better-off if we could all be more honest with each other.  However, I have noticed how difficult it is to meet his suggested challenge of consciously making a point not to lie (even the tiny ones) for a whole week - to see how often we might do it - while living in Korea.

In a society with Confucian values, elders are to be respected at all costs and I do think this puts extra pressure on the ability to be honest; sometimes honesty actually feels disrespectful and when the clashing values of two different cultures go at each other head-on this can cause some significant difficulties which may necessitate lying.  Even without cultural differences Koreans appear to lie to each other surprisingly regularly, especially when it comes to their family, which has shocked me a little.  Since day one, I have always disliked respect culture because of this necessity to lie.  It is not a measure of true respect that one needs to lie to people and especially family, I think it shows the opposite and the behaviour is more motivated by social pressure and fear.  In this confusion between fear and respect, South Korean culture makes the same mistake as the regime in North Korea.

The times I am regularly tempted to dish-out a few porky pies occur in two situations in Korea, at work and with my wife's family and I am going to give a few examples of dilemmas that have cropped-up from time to time.

When it comes to my in-laws, my wife tends to do the lying for me, partly because I am exquisitely uncomfortable with it and also because my Korean is not quite up to it.  One, rather massive fib we told my in-laws occurred a couple of years ago during my winter vacation from work.  There was only a small window my school allowed me to get away for a few weeks and I was thinking about a trip to Indonesia.  The only time I could get away, however, clashed with the Korean New Year holiday (Seollal).  My wife told me that her parents would never allow me go away at this time and that I should be with the family; my response was to say, "Well, I am not asking them, I will go if I want to, period."  Knowing that this would be a problem (my poor wife is often stuck in the middle in cultural problems such as this), my wife told her parents that I was going home to visit my family in England.  With the tensions that are often experienced and expected between the parents of married couples in Korea and the importance of family, they would not disapprove of this. 

To me, this seemed a bit immoral, I would have rather stood-up to them, apologised, and ultimately tried to explain how important travel and new experiences were to me and my freedom to make my own choices.  On good authority, however, I have been told many times that such a show of honesty would have been a big mistake if I valued my marriage.

These sorts of situations occur quite a lot; I have often got last minute requests to join my parents in-law for drinks with their friends - on a couple of occasions just as I was preparing to go to bed.  I simply refuse, which gives my wife headaches, but again she lies and says I am sick or I have an English class with someone or some other work to do.  I have to say, I have become more comfortable with doing this as time goes by.

Of course one of the tricky things with all this lying is the potential to slip-up at a later date because you have to remember all the lies you've told (as Sam Harris mentions in his book).  Even this aspect of lying is something I find completely different in Korea to living in England.  I find in England, people really are more interested in the truth, and especially parents, but in Korea not so much.  I believe the showing of respect holds greater importance.  This all means I rarely, if ever, get tested on the lies my wife and I have told.  In the Indonesian example, I visited there in January and February and came back with a markedly different skin tone, with tan lines where I had worn sunglasses.  Now, it could be that my in-laws were just ignorant of English weather in January and February, but they never remarked on this rather telling sign.

"He who is not sure of his memory should not undertake the trade of lying" - Montaigne

In fact, they never test me or my wife, ever.  I suspect they know, at least sometimes, when my wife lies to them to avoid conflict in such cases, but I am convinced that they don't really care.  The above quote is simply not relevant to me.  Goldfish can get away with lying in most situations in South Korea.

When it comes to my job, I have also had circumstances where being honest has become incredibly difficult.  Duty and being part of the group are very important factors in Korean culture and this holds particular relevance at work.  One of my personal bug-bears with Korean culture is the forced participation and enjoyment of workplace functions and activities.  I think it is particularly troublesome for women, but I have found it rubs me up the wrong way also.  Obligatory attendance at staff dinners and outings (and the forced drinking that results) are things that I am sure many Koreans hate about their culture, especially as they have to pay for them.  On paper they are not mandatory, but everyone knows the consequences for not joining in, which include ostracism at work, a generally harder time at work, and even bullying and the loss of a job or promotion opportunities.  The whole thing is one huge mess of dishonesty; younger, lower-ranked workers never want to participate, yet say they do and all the older, higher-ranked workers know the younger ones don't want to join them, but make them do it anyway.  They are lies the culture necessitates and that everyone accepts.

A special case of this occurred with me at around the time leading-up to my school's yearly festival, often quite a big deal in Korea.  It was the time of Gangnam Style's height of popularity and so it was decided that some of the younger teachers would do a Gangnam Style dance routine as a performance.  Most of the younger Korean teachers had been practicing for about 3 weeks before I was finally asked if I wanted to join in.  After replying that it wasn't really my cup of tea in as polite a manner as I could, several times, I was cajoled into going to a practice session.  The reality of it was they were demanding that I'd be in the centre of the performance and practice "diligently" (as they like to say) outside of my school hours to get up to speed with the rest of them.  The routine was also devilishly complicated for a slightly reserved Englishman with two left feet.  On top of it all, I had really grown a special hatred for that song because of the Korean obsession with it at the time and the amount it had been played.

Needless to say then, I refused to join in with the rest of them and no matter how many times I said this, "no" was simply not an answer they were willing to accept.  I was beginning to think I should have lied, like I had a bad knee or something, I think I would have only needed to say this once and then they would've eased-off and I would have heard nothing more about it.  Instead, though, I was hounded and told in the end that it was my obligation to do it.  With my heckles raised at this point, I tried very hard not to get angry and calmly disagreed.  I eventually had to sneak out of the school when they were not looking to get out of one more practice session, which they were going to physically drag me into doing.  I actually had to craftily tip-toe my way out of the door, can you believe it, no honesty was going to get me out of this mess.

The result of this was the cold shoulder treatment for a month or so and the implicit suggestion that they might not renew my contract for the next year.  If I had lied, my life would have been a hell of a lot easier and they would have liked me more.

On a smaller and more regular scale, one of the teachers I truly like at my school often takes me out for lunch every week.  While I appreciate this, I become a little uncomfortable because he always pays and I am saving for emigrating to Australia, so I cannot return the favour.  He is still happy to pay, but I really feel as though I am in his debt.  I also really enjoy the lunches at my school and this doesn't eat-up my entire lunchtime, like it does when I go out for lunch with him.  I wish we could just have lunch together in the school canteen.  In Korean culture, though, I just don't think being honest with him is feasible without causing a fair bit of offence.  At the time of writing, I just refused the offer of a biscuit from the admin lady in my office and her reaction was as if I had just ran over her dog or something, she looked genuinely upset.  I should have lied about wanting the biscuit and just hid it under some papers on my desk if I didn't want to eat it.

I'm not saying I never lie or that I am perfect, but I do try and live my life as honestly as I possibly can and I can remember past lies that came back to bite me when I was found out.  Having to remember all one's untruths is also a hassle I could really do without.  Along with the practical reasons for not lying, I feel a pang of guilt surging through me that makes me extremely uncomfortable when I do lie, so I still don't do it very much, even in Korea.  I do often let others do the lying for me though in Korea, and this is especially relevant with my wife and her parents.

In Western society too, being honest can hurt you, and I think Sam Harris brought-up the examples of people who exaggerate their CVs (resumes) having an advantage in employment over those who are honest and write a true CV.  However, I strongly feel that honesty is far more valued in Western countries, and if you are discovered to be lying this is deplored far more than in Korea at least, and possibly Far Eastern culture generally.  I also think people in Western countries are more interested in exposing liars and this holds especially true for parents and their children.

With this in mind then, while I agree whole-heartedly with Sam Harris about an honest world being a better one and a honest life being better for the individual, I must say that I think it depends.

I think Korean society would certainly be a better one if people lied less, just like Western society would be, but for the individual I am left scratching my head a little as to the best answer.  When it comes to our everyday lives, I think it is much easier to be honest in Western culture and that the fruits of the labour of being honest can be enjoyed fairly swiftly.  In a respect-based culture like Korea, on the other hand, I am more sceptical; honesty in this culture can cause real problems, not just in getting ahead in matters to do with work, but also in relationships generally.  For the benefits of not lying to show themselves to the individual, the whole culture would have to change, but I don't think this is the case in the West.


  1. Respect and saving face is needed wherever you go. And each individual ''Western'' culture is different. Please don't put them together under one generic umbrella.

    1. I find this a little typical of pseudo-intellectual, PC, overly liberal culture at the moment.

      Respect and saving face has an extreme element to it in South Korea which is harmful, not so much to foreigners, but to Koreans of low status, especially young people and women. To relativise it is unhelpful, it should be called out, it causes greater dishonesty between people.

      I realise "Western" is general, but Korean culture and Western culture are generally different and so therefore can be compared. It is the most obvious thing to say that "individuals are different", well of course they are, but general patterns can be revealing among populations of people. So i think I will continue to use the term "Western" when it helps clarify an argument.

    2. Just today I had lunch with a Chinese researcher, and he told me his advisor gave him a special lecture about Koreans before he came. Basically he was told to not trust them-that they lie all of the time and do not keep their words. I thought this was interesting, but to be honest, I have been burned about a dozen times by the little lies that have ended up costing me financially. I have never lived in China but if the Chinese say this about the koreans, well........

  2. I hate to say it but it seems like SK is really full of some really toxic social standards.
    Getting angry at you for not dancing like a clown???? Even your in laws being in control of where you go for your holiday???? Now I have heard from a few friends some crazy episodes that happened between their gfs and them, and I must admit some of the stuff, like freaking out and throwing my friends guitar off the 6th floor was pretty messed up, but if you look at K society from a distance, and this evening I have been reading a bunch of stories like yours (I just got done reading a blog by a Philippine woman whose husband woke her up in the middle of the night so that she could get him water!! And her best friend who is married to a korean had the same experience and her mother in law is making her cook korean food every day, and make her treat her son like a prince) Man, this is one messed up place!!! I do not want to beat around the bush, but calling a spade a spade is just what a person needs to do. Koreans killing themselves, and putting up with so much BS, and then the whole lying thing (which I think we all have been stung by) how on earth can you married guys survive without going bonkers??

    1. I agree that lying is sometimes necessary when living within a different culture, especially when you know it would be futile because of the 'culture clash'.
      In all humans, I believe it is in our nature to want to take the easier route and lying on the whole is much easier than telling the truth if it means avoiding conflict - but lying I believe is the lazy way out and can prevent us from growing and evolving - it discourages our growth.
      From a cultural and human perspective, it cannot be healthy.
      Lying is fear-based, oppressive and negative.......truth, however is liberating, healthy, life-enhancing and positive when spoken with forethought and integrity.
      An oppressed society/culture cannot be a life-enhancing experience, so I agree that the world would be a better place if we were to be more honest.

    2. @Pat I think what you say here is basically perfect (you wouldn't be my mother by any chance?)

      @Anon My wife is great, she is not at all demanding or crazy. Her parents and some other relatives, on the other hand, do have their moments but fortunately I don't have to see them all the time and I won't be living in Korea permanently. Also, her relatives are not as hardcore as some Korean family I have heard of and they are really nice people. I have had messages sent to me (on this blog and in e-mail) from women from a range of different countries who have ended up living with their in-laws in Korea and that sounded pretty bad as the in-laws were extremely demanding. I think men have it easier generally. Many Koreans are different though and I have known many examples of relaxed families and honest and good couples, obviously.

      PS: I wrote about my experience about 'dancing like a clown' once before on a different site and as predicted I got heavily criticised by some people (entirely from fellow foreign teachers in Korea) for not doing it. Even on this post a commenter on facebook hammered me for not respecting their culture and not joining in. Lots of people are obviously glad of their chains sometimes, thanks for not being one of them.

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    4. I can agree with you, do you know why the suicide rate is high in Korea?
      Parents abuse their kids if they don't get good grades and the students are tired of the beatings and they would rather kill themselves rather then be beaten and shamed at home

  3. I lived and worked in Korea for 3 years. Now I'm in Taiwan. I understand 100% where you are coming from, as I was in the same situations and thought exactly the same way re: lying. Here's how I handled it: I just said, "No thanks." every time I was asked to participate in anything extra-curricular. I told people that I understand their culture, but in my culture, senior employees and management didn't put people in such situations, and that after hours was personal time not to be messed with. After a few 'no thanks', people left me alone which was perfect and I could concentrate on my work and choosing friends rather than being thrust into a group nightmare.

    One thing you didn't mention re:lying was the fact the so many Koreans try and do something for you or give you something when it is either for show to let others know that they have a foreigner friend, or because they are going to ask you for a favor soon. That could be something like expecting you to be their English teacher or to do something for them based upon some talent you might have. What I learned to do when I met people was to give them a gift or do something for them. That way, they expected that I was going to call them on it somewhere down the line. I never did, and that kept them off-balance enough that they never bothered me.

    I found that I was a good teacher, solid. Never late, always did my work on time and even completed things early, so there would never be any fault with my work. I also was cordial and smiled at all my co-workers and always had time for them at work. They key phrase here is 'at work.' In my 3 years I never felt societal pressure. Of course, I had no intention of marrying into a Korean family. Never. No woman could have satisfied me enough that I would have done that unless she felt the same way as I did about independence and lying.



    1. Yeah, I pretty much handle things the same as you wrote in your first paragraph. Also, it does help if you do a solid job at work, it gives you license to refuse the extra-curricular stuff and others at work can't really make you feel uncomfortable about your job. The occasional situation comes around at work, but these awkward situations are becoming less frequent with time.

      I am happily married to a Korean woman, and she feels the same about independence and lying, but her family don't, which does create its problems from time to time. Fortunately, she understands my frustrations and I don't spend all that much time with my in-laws, so I guess I can put up with it, but sure, I wish I didn't have to sometimes.

      Thanks for commenting.

  4. The actual history is:
    Korea had been a slave country of China for hundreds of years.
    However, the history written in South Korean textbook is:
    Korea has been a great, independent country for 5,000 years !!
    They teach their children that their country existed even before China!

    Most South Korean people are ‘plastic-surgery beauty’.
    They really prefer plastic surgery and creating history.

    Korean 'comfort women' in military, they were just high salary prostitutes.
    Moreover, mediators were Korean, and they had obtained big money from Japan military and Korean 'comfort women' by a trick in ww2.
    Many aged-people of South Korea are knowing the fact, but they lie calmly for getting money and their pride.

    This is South Korean.

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