Saturday, May 11, 2013

When in Rome.....

We always hear about a powerful West taking advantage of the rest of the world and the atrocities of past colonialism and present capitalism.  But what if people in other countries are now using our own cultural thinking against us and playing on the past for their own advantage?  This process can be consciously done or may even be an unconscious way of getting ahead.

A blog post by Sam Harris perked my interest the other day where he published a question and answer session with his twitter followers.  One answer to a particular question got me thinking about life in the Far East and the double-standard many people live by when it comes to dialogue and understanding between different cultures.

Adam Dorr @adam_dorr You seem to avoid political morality. Care to engage? Is conservativism inherently less moral than liberalism? 

"I touch on this briefly in The Moral Landscape and Free Will. These views have different strengths and weaknesses. Depending on the context, one can be less in touch with reality than the other and conducive to greater harm. One of the virtues of liberalism is self-doubt and a willingness to consider the other person’s point of view. In the presence of antagonists who don’t have a point of view worth considering (e.g. psychopaths, religious maniacs), liberalism can be a recipe for masochism and moral cowardice. Conservatives tend not have this problem. But when conservatives are wrong, they often lack the corrective mechanisms of liberals. It’s hard to generalize, but it is worth noting that there is a structural asymmetry here: liberalism can be exploited in a way that conservatism cannot."

Although the Western world has its conservatives and the Eastern world has its liberals, I don't think it would be controversial to say that - generally speaking - the West has a much more liberal mindset than the East.  This is perhaps starting to create situations where exploitation of Westerners and Western countries is commonplace.  Much has been said about the problems faced by Muslim culture entering our societies and the way many of their principles are not challenged enough within Western countries.  This is an area that I will leave to others, however, as I have much more experience in the Far East and in Korea especially.

When in Rome do as the Romans do

Conservative Korea has its cultural practices and its principles and most of the people stick to them.  This is fine sometimes and I admire some aspects of conservatism for standing up for their opinions and fighting for them, however a considerable weakness of the Korean way of thinking is the inability to accept another argument.  Age and tradition trumps reason and this causes significant problems in accepting or understanding the ways of other cultures.  Another problem is that, just as Sam Harris says in his above reply to the questioner, liberal Westerners come to Korea and show a fairly unhealthy degree of masochism and moral cowardice and it isn't only psychopaths and religious maniacs we can give way to.

I have discovered on many occasions that Koreans know the above saying, 'When in Rome do as the Romans do', extremely well (although they tend to say 'when in Rome follow the Roman way'), and if I have ever expressed a hint of dissent about any aspect of my duties in Korea - at work or with my Korean family - this proverb comes out pretty regularly as a conversation ender.  The insinuation is that you are in Korea and you must follow the Korean way, and that there is nothing you can say.  The fact that they use the proverbial wisdom from Western culture seems to make this argument even more difficult to go up against.  

Perhaps the most annoying thing is that many don't really believe in it; my wife often complains about Koreans when they travel to other countries that they stay only within their own groups, eat only Korean food, and can be blissfully unaware of the customs of the culture that they are in (bear in mind that these are my Korean wife's complaints about some other Koreans, especially the older ones).  These are precisely the kind of people that might use this saying against people who come to their own country.

I am always one for famous quotes that impart the wisdom of the ages, but this is not one of my favourites.  For a start, there is a definite feel of a threat embedded in it.  'Do as the Romans do....or else!'  This has always the context I have felt when I have had this saying thrown at me and was surely an important factor in the developing of it in the first place, because if you didn't do as the Romans do, you'd be discovered, tortured, and thrown into the river Tiber.  To 'do as the Romans do' is either to be sensible in the face of a very real threat, to genuinely enjoy a new cultural experience, or to simply be a coward.  

So what is the threat that Koreans have to back-up what they say about following their culture?  In my case, my parents in-law can threaten the relationship between my wife and I, but in most cases of foreigners living in Korea the threat is to lose your job and therefore your visa or to have a life that is made very difficult indeed.  And I have known some quite unreasonable and unscrupulous ways in which some Korean employers have achieved this with foreign employees they have disliked.

I think foreigners living in Korea (including myself) do show moral cowardice; our natural inclination is to give way and this isn't only due to being humble in a part of the world that we know little about but is also sometimes down to arrogance and a feeling of magnanimous superiority.  Plenty of foreigners come to Korea and do what their told whilst at the same time thinking that the the Korean people they are placating are simply not worth respecting on the inside and that they really know next to nothing compared to them (sometimes this is justified and sometimes not).  Maybe there are even issues of guilt to do with wealth and past history also.  One thing should be abundantly clear and that is conforming does not necessarily entail respecting.

Perhaps giving way, relinquishing our principles, and conforming are really the only way we can all get along but I think this is troubling.  What side is trying to do the understanding, what side is ready to adapt, accept, and conform?  Too often it is only one and I think this should not go unnoticed.  

I am regularly astounded about how incredibly ignorant most Korean people are of Western core principles; they think they know them but it is amazing how they don't really understand it (the frequent observation that Westerners are selfish is an example of this) and if they can comprehend them they certainly don't make concessions for them.  Their knowledge of almost every other aspect of Western culture is surprisingly good (especially the bad parts, which they often embrace).  Westerners on the other hand tend to be far more able to understand arguments and principles from the perspective of another culture but are woefully ignorant of many other aspects.  This could well be the liberal/conservative mindset at work and the fact that Western popular culture is envied by the rest of the world at this time.

I think it is time we started to disrespect the old saying 'When in Rome do as the Romans do' and suggest something else.  How about; when in another culture try your best to understand, be polite, be humble, open to new ways of thinking and doing things, and be willing to learn.  However, do not relinquish all of your dignity, your principles, or your self-respect.  If refusing to give way on these issues brings you into direct conflict with others, then so be it.  If refusing to give way puts you in harms way - whether this be physical, mental, or whatever - you can pretend to be respectful, but not genuinely, and you should be suspicious of their motives and of this aspect of their culture.  Not quite as pithy and eloquent as the 'Romans' proverb but it is a vast improvement.


  1. Hey Chris,

    I see what you mean but then again ...

    I believe communication, and finding the middle way, is a good way of trying to understand each other.

    If you are put in a situation where a certain decorum is asked of you, but you are unable to comply due to your own set of principles, you really need to make it clear why you cannot comply.

    I myself don't drink, which is, as you can imagine, considered strange by Korean men. I got myself exempt from drinking alcohol, during the ceremonies where alcohol is expected to be consumed, through communication.

    Don't just say "No". Say, "I am sorry, but ....

    The form in which we communicate can make negotiation a little easier. Coming to a common understood agreement in Korea is a very much appreciated skill.

    An approach of conflict simply doesn't work.

    1. This is all very agreeable, but in reality there are many situations where this simply doesn't work. Of course we shouldn't be openly confrontational, but simply disagreeing with some cultural thinking and practices here is enough to cause an angry and often threatening response. Mostly I agree with what you say, but I am merely saying conflict is sometimes unavoidable if we want to maintain our principles and not just passively agree with something everyone says just because we are living in 'their' country.

      I too don't drink and explain my reasons. This wish is mostly respected but not always, I have had some Koreans forcibly put a glass in my hand hold it there with theirs and poor me a drink. My response to this is to sip a non-existent amount of alcohol afterwards and this avoids any argument and I can not drink and get away without offending anyone. There are many situations, however, especially with my in-laws, where such tact is not possible and anything that is not agreement or conformity is taken as an insult. Like the refusal to go out to a smoky bar at 10pm on a moments notice, to the other side of town, on a workday just because my mother in-law wants to show my wife and I off to her friend who has her daughter and son in-law present (In bed as I was at the time). How can I tactfully avoid conflict and communicate effectively here. She was insulted that I didn't come despite my wife explaining that I was tired, needed to wake up early for work, had done a lot of exercise, usually go to bed early, etc.

      I also had a situation at my school where I refused to perform a Gangnam Style routine at my school festival. I explained my reasons and was as polite as I possibly could be, but my view was not respected, they did not accept it and physically pulled me into a practice session a week before the event. They had been practicing for 3 weeks before they even told me about it and then expected me to be at the centre of the performance with only 2 practice sessions and further 'study' after school. I thought this unreasonable and didn't want to do it. I had to walk out of the school in protest to show that I did not want to do it, as tactful explanations and apologies were not persuading them. I was told it was my 'obligation' and I must do it. After this it was made very clear to me by my co-teacher that I had better think twice about my behaviour if I wanted to renew my contract and she left me with great uncertainty over whether they would. This was solely down to this incident.

      Finally, I have explained incidents like this before on blogs and you'd be amazed how many Western people just say, 'Just suck it up and go or do it, and get over myself'. I feel this is missing the point entirely and is what this post addresses. Indeed I actually agree with most of what you say and I summed it up with this line in the final paragraph:

      "when in another culture try your best to understand, be polite, be humble, open to new ways of thinking and doing things, and be willing to learn."

      But there are limits which is why I followed it with this:

      "However, do not relinquish all of your dignity, your principles, or your self-respect."

  2. Yes, I agree with your example. When you are put in a situation where they did not give you a choice, or would refuse to understand your point of view, simply refusing to do it is the only solution.

    I do think human dignity should be the first step to mutual respect, with stress on MUTUAL.

    1. I agree with the mutual respect, but who is really trying? In my case and most Western visitors (and indeed SE Asians) we are working our asses off not to offend and try to understand. The demands and the inflexibility tend to come from mainly one direction. This could be because of that conservative/liberal mindset. I think it is most people's position that cultural misunderstandings and conflict are nobody's fault or even the fault of the Western person in Korea, I am not so sure. I am sure that sometimes Westerners are to blame but Korean culture should received a fair bit of criticism as well for the way it oftens disregards visitor's thoughts, feelings and needs.

  3. The "do as romans do" sentiment is uttered by the people who the empire and its very militant and Keynesian way of dealing with upstarts, not by the romans themselves.

    Rome did fall, however, and if Korea insists on invoking it as reinforcement for their lack of understanding towards politics, they will, inevitably, fall just the same.

    I have another good saying for the do-as-romans crowd:
    "Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it"

    1. *who lived under the empire.

    2. I was unsure of the term's origin but suspected that threat was a part of it. I have heard this phrase spoken so many times in Korea and everyone who has used it against me has had a smug look on their face afterwards like it is the knock-down argument of all time.

  4. I'm very glad you wrote this post Chris, as this is one aspect of their culture - a very HUGE aspect - that I really have a problem with. Korea is the only country I have lived in where I'm expected to bend over backwards to fit into the culture. foreigners have to "give" so much in that sense, but all Koreans do is take and not even "give". What I mean by "give" here is that they dont even try to understand or make concessions to foreigners, and which is why I always feel that this is one of the reasons Korea is a very cold and lonely place to live in (for me). In other countries, the locals try to meet me halfway, not in Korea no.

    I also suspect this largely has to do with the "mental rigidity" alot of the locals have. Having studied tehre for awhile, the students in university have demonstrated an appalling absence of critical thinking. They only think what is right is what is written in their textbooks and told to them by older generations, hence the utter lack to see another perpective (let alone a foreigner's) that verves away from the views of those sources.

    It's rather sad. And for me, makes it one of the most depressing places on earth to live in.

    1. There are many things I like about Korea, but you are right that they just don't seem to possess a concept of seeing things from another point of view, most are extremely rigid in their thinking. The depressing thing for me is that this makes the only people worth talking to or being friends with are the ones that have lived abroad and whose English is good, as they are the ones who can understand and "give and take".

      It sounds as if i am pitting 'us against them' when I say that it is only foreigners that are trying, but in most cases this really is true and this should be pointed out. Sometimes in clashes of culture one side really does have the moral high-ground and in this case it should go to the side who is trying to do their best to comprehend the other and act accordingly.

    2. Yes, exactly! I totally agree with your second paragraph. It really got to me after awhile.

      And I agree with you - The Koreans I've formed very close friendships with (I'm no longer in the country, but they fly over to my country just to visit me) and speak to very often happen to be the ones who have lived overbroad for awhile and speak relatively good English - and even if they don't, are very interested in other languages/cultures. And does it surprise you that most of the koreans that have the above criteria are females?

      I think it was an earlier post where you posted about the difficulty of forming friendships with Korean men. I experience the exact same thing. I'm a girl by the way, mixed-Asian. And I find alot of young Korean men I interact with tend to fall into 2 categories. 1) The ones who seem to have a chip on their shoulders and demand respect from people around them all the time - though there's nothing about them that warrants respect from others. 2) the ones desperately looking for a 'pretty girl' to be their girlfriend(s).

      Seriously. I rarely find interesting Korean men to befriend (if you tell them you are attached they don't want to stay friends either), but there are many interesting Korean women who make great friends. It's also for these reasons that I find Korean men to be one of the most extremely unattractive people I've ever known (and I'm not even talking about physical looks yet), despite the boners that many brainwashed young women where I'm from have for them.

    3. Yes, I wondered if it was only me that noticed this with regard to men and women in Korea. What I find curious is that my high school boy students are terrific. I really enjoy teaching them; they are open-minded, fun, respectful, and are generally so easy to get along with. Just a couple of years later, however, it all seems to go wrong and I think your reason number 1 (not sure I am in the position to know number 2!) is the main cause, i.e. the demanding of respect. This is so corrosive to their characters. I have found it almost impossible to have a normal relationship with the men as every interaction feels like competition for status and respect.

      The women of course, don't demand respect (especially when they are young) because traditionally they are not worthy of much of it, this is why they are so much easier to get along with. Also, it is therefore no surprise that they are more interested in travelling to and learning other cultures, and especially Western culture, as it addresses women much more equally. Korean culture simply is advantageous to men and they want to hang on to it and are more suspicious of foreigners, women don't want hang on so much and are more open to ideas from other countries.

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