Monday, December 14, 2009


Ah, a universal form of communication. Laughter. How could anyone possibly screw this one up? I mean, it must be the same everywhere you go, right?

Leave it to Korea to make things backwards. Other than the standard laugh that occurs when something funny happens, Koreans (to include other Asians) might also laugh when embarrassed or nervous. But here's the thing, it looks like it's funny...but it's not.

Scenario: A foreign businessperson approaches his secretary and asks why the report he asked for is late. She responds by quietly laughing. She just remembered that he asked for it yesterday. So, in embarrassment, she does the one thing that will surely make him upset. She has grin on her face. He looks like he's ready to punch the wall.

In the Western sense, it almost sets up the offended party to retort with "Oh, so you think it's funny?" thus escalating the issue. But when viewed in respect to saving face, this makes total sense.
Korean nervous embarrassed laughter laugh Schruted It funny cat
It reminds me of Ralph on the Simpsons when he sees that drunk Krusty the Clown impersonator. "He's still funny just not ha ha funny". In the scenario, the secretary is laughing at the embarrassment of being irresponsible. But the exec takes it as she was laughing at him. Or perhaps he's just a little perturbed that instead of an apology or a quick reaction to fix the situation, her initial instinct ws to do something seemingly inappropriate and unprofessional. Even if she were laughing with him, it would still be a little out of place in the Western work environment.

It's comforting to know that typically when trying to save face, the nervous party is not laughing at you. It's just that when pushed into a corner, sometimes the only thing to avoid losing face is to grin like an idiot. Like a "I'm laughing at myself" type of laugh.

In conclusion, if you find yourself getting laughed at, take a quick step back and discover why someone might be laughing. If your coworker is smiling like he just finally figured out where the beef went, maybe it's because you set him up for it. So cool down, analyze the situation, and move past this situation as quickly as possible.
For someone working with Koreans and find themselves puzzled by other such curious situations, I offer this book.

To that, I leave you with this. Laugh away. Or cringe. Whatever. And if that doesn't do anything for you, just watch this. I like to talk over the footage with my own voices...that's something we can all laugh at together.
Pissed off bird funny