Monday, December 14, 2009


Koreans can be terrible about it. I have been stood up more times than I'm happy to admit, but not by dates, but by Koreans. Oh sure, times are changing... but historically, Koreans haven't faired well with keeping appointments on time.

Korean punctuality Stand Up Stood

It's not their fault. Maybe it's my fault for being punctual. Maybe I make too big a deal of this. I mean, all other Americans think similarly (only we aren't as homogeneous as Koreans and thus, many Americans are remorselessly late too). Maybe I never really questioned it until now?

Those of you familiar with Mexican culture will know that MexicoTime is about +1 hour past the time agreed upon. By comparison, KoreaTime is usually +15 minutes past the time stated. Not bad. But there must be a reason, right? It's not just to make my blood pressure rise, is it?

For many Hispanics, the time that was agreed upon is flexible because people come first, not time. So, if a someone needed a quick favor or a chore needed to be done before heading off to the appointment, most likely the person will be late because these other things come first. It's quite charming when you look at it that way. He's not lazy, he's considerate.

With Koreans, I'm still a bit puzzled. KoreaTime goes beyond this and sometimes just stops altogether - leaving me tapping my foot for an hour - waiting. Cellphones are plentiful, so just give me a call already 누나!

For Americans at least, we like to to think of keeping our appointments and being punctual as being considerate of other people's time, if for no other reason than the golden rule. When I am stood up, I get the impression that my friend thinks his/her time is more valuable than mine, even though that is not their intention. Although, I must also realize that Americans almost by definition are a little (if not very) egocentric and can have some trouble thinking about others before themselves.

It's funny because this is the most troubling thing that I deal with. This. I have more stress related to punctuality with my Korean friends than any other aspect. Not the language barrier, now who's going to foot the bill, not the any other obstacle. It drives me up the wall. 진짜!

Historically, when you look at Korean international business, not only foreigners that expect to be successful have to establish deep personal relationships with chaebol (재벌) figureheads, but these foreign businesspeople must also expect that the written contract is worth about as much as the paper that the contract is printed on. Why? Because in this context, Koreans value the verbal agreement over what some little sheet of tree pulp says. And yet it comes to great surprise to Westerners when contract signing day comes that Koreans are still trying to negotiate despite an already notarized contract laying in front of them. It fascinates me that this tradition still exists (to an increasingly less degree) given Korea's influential economic power.

I have now come to possess two different standards. First, I have my normal standard that firmly states that I and others around me should always 1) keep their appointments and 2) show up on time (which for many is 10 minutes earlier than time stated). Second, my other standard is lax and in constant flux. "Maybe we'll go to 노래방 tonight and maybe we won't. Oh well".

In any case, it's just one of those cultural differences that helps to further differentiate our two cultures. Maybe I'm a little too uptight about time, but that's just how I was raised! Maybe my Korean friend is a little too relaxed about time, but that's just how he was raised.