Saturday, May 10, 2014

Safety in Korea: Forming Good Habits

I was recently invited onto a panel discussion on tbs eFM Primetime - an English speaking radio station in Seoul - to talk about safety in Korea.  I was originally invited to give my point of view about South Korean cultural involvement in the Sewol tragedy, but couldn't do it, so they invited me to the next relevant debate instead.

Because I live about as far from Seoul as you can be in Korea, I was not able to appear in person in the studio, which was a pity, but I gave some points in a short telephone interview.  You can listen to the whole program by searching here (on Wednesday May 7th) and I found the perspective of the two university professors in the studio quite interesting.

I won't go into the whole discussion, for this post I will only focus on one aspect of the debate.  During the discussion on the radio, both myself and one of the professors in the studio came up with an interesting point about getting into good habits regarding safety.

I actually think Koreans are being a bit hard on themselves and the other professor in the discussion made some quite scathing comments about Koreans being uncivilised, uncaring, even describing them as animals for such things as not forming orderly queues.  Many articles have also been written in the Korean media about how they as a society care too much about money and getting things done quickly and don't care about people enough. Perhaps there is some truth to this, it's possible the country as a whole has become too obsessed with success and economic development and it was certainly a factor in the poor safety practices at my wife's hospital when she worked in Korea.  But I think a general lack of safety awareness and a poor understanding of risk are the greater culprits.

The situation on the roads is a perfect example of this.  In my experience, lots of people cross the road without looking both ways, sometimes not even looking at all or with their heads buried in their smart phones. Inside cars, I have had the experience of siting in the back of a car with a Korean mother driving with her son of 12 years old in the passenger seat and who was wearing no seat belt and have friends who recall similar experiences.  I also get regular lifts to play squash with a man who has a young daughter (4 years old) who sits with no seat belt on in the back seat while he drives at ridiculous speeds, weaving in and out of traffic, while texting and calling people on his phone.  I shut my eyes and pray for the best.

I should say something in these circumstances, and I would in my own country in the same situations (I doubt whether it would ever happen though), but if I did (especially in my clumsy Korean) I would be worried that it would come across as me insinuating that they don't care for their children or that they are bad parents. Just like the person who tells the mother of a screaming baby on a long-haul flight to keep him/her quiet, you are never the good guy in such situations.  Perhaps I should say something anyway, it might save their lives one day.

Yet, from what I know of this mother and of my friend who I play squash with, they would do anything for their children.  I am sure they would throw themselves in front of a bus or run into a burning building to save them.  I see them dote on them and I simply can't believe that they don't care enough.  And the people with their heads in their smart phones as they cross the road; what monetary gain or time-saving are they getting out of doing it?  And don't they care about their own lives?

It leads me to think that probably the main issue here is ignorance of risk and safety and that this state of being leads easily into ignoring it for profit and time saving.  I think this is cultural as I see it everywhere. People's everyday habits and actions are just not attuned to common dangers.  Most of these good habitual practices can be taught and drummed into people of a very young age and it can start as soon as children can walk and talk, pick up chopsticks or a knife and fork, or learn about respecting their elders in speech.

Crossing the road is a classic example of this.  Much of the time, I can find myself walking around in something of a day dream, my senses aren't heightened to danger all the time, even when I am crossing the road (although I do make more of a conscious effort in Korea).  But by force of habit, when I hit the edge of a pavement, I look both ways.  The funny thing is that it took about a year of living in Korea to look the correct way at the correct time when crossing the road, because in England the traffic comes from the opposite direction.  I found myself being more careful because my brain was so confused.  You'd think it would be simple, just look the opposite way when you should, but so ingrained the behaviour was, it took almost a year of crossing streets day in day out to get over it.

Whilst I think England has much better habits when it comes to safety, I have increasingly felt that the country has gone too far in its concern for it.  Masses of red tape need to be dealt with even relating to the most minor risks imaginable.  Health and safety has become something that people really detest and it causes a significant reduction in civil liberties and personal responsibility due to the laws and other obstacles you have to overcome to do almost anything at all.  It also opens people up for being liable for other's injuries and too many people seek compensation when they don't deserve it.  One of the things I enjoy about Korea is that I feel freer living here.  I hope it is not inevitable that, in time, improving health and safety will turn into an unhealthy obsession with it, like in England.  Why oh why can we not meet in the middle between the two cultures, on this and many other issues?


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  2. I agree in many parts, Christopher. Overall I tend to have a different view of all this. I don't believe Korea's problems are bound up in protocols or rules, laws or anything else like this but in essence are about free-will, determinism and basic human choice.

    I happen to believe that Korea's core problem is fundamentally an existential one that runs very deep. I see it as having two options: the cheap, faster way that ignores health and safety versus the expensive, longer way that prioritises health and safety: the point is for too long Korea has chosen the former of the two and has convinced itself that this is the way to go.

    Doing things the quick, cheap and easy way does have its advantages and its parting with those advantages and returns that I think will be the hardest thing for Koreans. Yielding those advantages will give a significant upper hand to their competitors, its like a reverse domino effect in a way; A starts doing things in a way that yields various advantages, B sees this and follows suit, so does C and then D etc.

    It is also a cultural one as, as I see it, Korea is a country that is predominantly governed by culture, not law. Culture is relative, subjective and transient; law is (or is supposed to be) absolute, objective and universal. Whilst my last point may seem slightly idealistic I think, tit-for-tat, western countries are on point with this enough for it to be a significantly better system than the one in Korea. Koreans don't respect the law and aren't afraid of the consequences of breaking the law; once again, you see this everywhere in Korea. The role of the law is what separates countries like Korea from western countries.

    The shocking thing about the Sewol disaster is how many layers of industry and the authorities were found to be negligent, from the holdings company Chonghaejin right through to the captain of the ship himself. I don't think you would find this in Britain or Germany for example because countries like these have a structural administration in place to ensure that these very incidents do not (or cannot) happen. These are also countries where negligence is punished is the strictest of ways.

    Korea has an identifiable and demonstrable history of not really punishing negligence and criminal behaviour. Sentences are soft and out of court settlements are strongly encouraged, they even have a day where criminals are pardoned for goodness sakes.
    This has to change in my opinion.

    Casual abuse of the law can be seen everywhere, literally everywhere, in this country. People who follow laws and rules, abide by contracts and prioritise health and safety are seen as difficult and uncompromising; people who flaunt these same things in favour of quick results and saving money (ie increasing profits) are seen intelligent and pragmatic.

    1. What you say about respect for law and how the country is governed by culture is absolutely right.

      The post was specifically about habits and I didn't want to get into the causes of bad habits and all the matters regarding safety. Surely, what you wrote here is extremely relevant also.

      Doing things the quick, cheap, and easy way like you said, has significant advantages in business - until you have a big disaster, of course, which then may spell the end of your business. There is this aspect, and this is probably the number one reason for the Sewol disaster, specifically. I do wonder, though, about the many safety issues I see in Korea that aren't tied-up with saving time and money. I wonder whether if people addressed those concerns, and for example enlightened parents to the dangers they are putting on their children and then encouraging ingrained, simple safety habits into children at a young age, whether you might see a natural improvement in safety in the future with people less likely to trump money and speed over people's lives. You may be able to tackle the deep-rooted appeal of cheaper and faster through making people aware of danger through habit forming culture. The reason Korea chooses cheap and fast may not be just economic but also that the dangers of ignoring safety never really jump out in their minds. It is possible that the choice between being safe and cutting corners to save time and money is not something many people are consciously aware of . This would only be one way I would approach things though, if I had any influence. There is obviously need for stricter, better enforced laws and this in turn may also help raise consciousness as well and improve safety habits and practices.

  3. Yeah..this is about 'culture', I'm sure.

    I live in a small town where cars are always threatening me because roads are too packed and narrow. So It became my habit avoiding any cars approaching me.

    But when I worked in a bigger city, co-workers living in that city laughed at me for 'being so cautious about possible danger', they called me a safety freak. They actually said "cars will avoid you even if you cross the road with your eyes closed, don't be such a baby."

    ...................You can be considered as a coward if you freak out when a car approaches too closely.

    Hello, Korea, what a brave country.

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