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9 May 2024

On greeting strangers – I had an interesting encounter on campus last week. It was a warm, sunny day, and I was walking back to my office after returning some books to the library. I was thinking about taking a stroll to enjoy the weather when I saw two students approaching me from the opposite direction. I did not recognize them, but when they spotted me they suddenly turned toward me with purpose. I resigned myself to what would no doubt be an awkward encounter.

“...the greeting is not what is important—it is the connection.”

If you are a foreigner who has lived in Korea for any significant length of time, this has no doubt happened to you before. The first time this ever happened to me was not long after I first arrived here. I was waiting at a crosswalk downtown, somewhere near Nam-san. There were quite a few people on both sides of the crosswalk, but there was one man in particular waiting on the other side that caught my attention. He spotted me in the crowd and his face lit up like a Christmas tree. When the light turned green, he ran across the street, straight toward me. I braced myself, having no idea what was coming, but when he reached me he stopped, threw his arms out, and joyfully yelled, “Welcome to Korea!” Then, grinning from ear to ear, he ran off again, leaving me bewildered in the middle of the street. When I told HJ this story years later, she mentioned that they had been taught in school before the ‘88 Seoul Olympics that if they saw any foreigners around the city they should greet them by saying, “Welcome to Korea!” I have to imagine that this guy had never had the chance to do so, and he was so excited that his day had finally come.

Of course, not all of my encounters have been that innocent or that positive. But that’s not the point of today’s entry. I’ve had students approach me on campus before, and although the experiences have often been awkward, they’ve never been too negative. I could see from the looks on these two guys’ faces that they were on a mission, and when they were within speaking distance they said—in stereo English—“Have a nice day!” It was so ridiculous that I couldn’t help but let out a chuckle, and I gave them a wave and a nod. They looked incredibly pleased with themselves as they walked off.

As soon as I had passed them, though, off in the distance, I saw a girl filming the scene with her phone and laughing. Something was up. As I reached her, I asked her (in Korean) what they were doing. She explained that they were working on a “campaign” (this is the word used in Korea to refer to a social movement as opposed to a political campaign). A guy who had been standing nearby approached and offered more detail: They felt that society would be a better place if people greeted each other more, and they were conducting experiments to see how people would react. The girl asked me if I would be willing to be interviewed briefly. I didn’t have anything pressing to get back to, the weather was nice, and I do generally try to help students out when I can, so I agreed.

The two guys who had greeted me came back, and I was soon surrounded by a small gaggle of students. The guy who had spoken to me appeared to be the team leader, and he asked me if I ever greeted strangers. I thought about it for a moment and then said, “Maybe when I’m out hiking. I might nod or say hello to people as they pass by.” “Ah,” the student replied, “so you might greet someone if you shared a common purpose.” He came up with this reply immediately, so it was obvious he had given the matter some thought. Then he asked me how I felt when the two guys greeted me. “Do you want an honest answer?” I asked. He nodded. “It was weird.” This made all the students laugh, including the two guys who had been on the front line.

The interview didn’t last very long, but I explained to them that, no, I do not generally go out of my way to greet random people on the street, nor am I usually happy about being greeted in such a way myself. When they asked why, I said: “Well, you guys probably haven’t had this experience, but if you’re a foreigner in Korea and someone you don’t know approaches you, it is rarely a good thing. They’re either disturbed or they’re trying to evangelize you. Or both.” This got some thoughtful nods. I added that I am not a very extroverted person, and I like to respect people’s right to be left alone in the same way that I hope people will respect mine.

They thanked me for my time, and I wished them good luck with their project. As I walked away, I heard the team leader ask the girl, “Do you remember what he said?” The interview had been impromptu; good on the girl for thinking to ask for an interview, but they had clearly not been prepared for one. I expect that they were able to capture at least the gist of my comments.

As I walked back to my office, I thought about their premise. I had not wanted to rain on their parade—I think students should be encouraged, and they should also be allowed to make their own mistakes and learn their own lessons—but when they told me the point of their project, I have to admit I was befuddled. I suspect that they might have this image of people outside of Korea, especially in the West, walking around and greeting each other like you might see in The Truman Show. Remember, though, that that film was about (um, spoiler alert?) a fake world created for the benefit of the show’s protagonist. That’s not the way people act in real life, especially in big cities (this was something that I mentioned during the brief interview). Even where I grew up (which was not a big city), people did not randomly greet strangers on the street.

The guy I am assuming was the team leader had a good insight—if there is a common purpose bringing two people together, then it might make sense for them to greet each other. It doesn’t even have to be a strong purpose. Even being seated next to someone on the plane can be enough. I usually don’t do this when I am flying with HJ, but when I fly alone (and I do this at least once or twice a year) I will often make an attempt to at least nod or smile at, if not greet, the person sitting next to me. Why do I do this? Well, I may be introverted, but that does not mean I am unsociable (although a lot of people do confuse the two concepts). If I had to give a concrete reason, I would say that I try to create even the most tenuous of connections with the person next to me because it tends to make subsequent interactions easier. We are no longer complete strangers, so we are likely to be more considerate should we have to navigate any possibly awkward situations.

But in cases like this I have a common purpose with the person sitting next to me—to survive however many hours we have to spend in this uncomfortable environment in order to reach our destinations. I don’t share such a purpose with some random person I pass on the street. I suppose if you wanted to obstinately follow my logic to absurdity, you could say that everyone shares the purpose of trying to make it through another day on this planet. And I don’t suppose I can really argue with that, but you have to draw the line somewhere, don’t you? I mean... don’t you? Imagine how ridiculous it would be if everyone said hi or just nodded and smiled to everyone they passed on the street. Imagine how... much better that would probably make everyone feel. Hmm.

OK—in an ideal world, yeah, maybe society would be a better place if people took the time to make even the thinnest of connections with their fellow human beings. Maybe people would be more likely to consider other peoples’ feelings before they acted. But we don’t live in a perfect world. Like I wrote above, many of the interactions I’ve had with random people on the street have been at the very least uncomfortable, if not scary.

Even as I write this, though, it feels like I am trying to make excuses. I had a pretty clear idea of what I thought this entry was going to be when I started writing: a few words about a group of idealistic but misguided students and their amusing project. But now I find myself rethinking my position—reevaluating my priors, in Bayesian terms. As I wrote that paragraph about greeting people on airplanes, I realized that I was following the same logic the students were espousing.

So, why don’t we greet strangers on the street? I guess it’s because greeting someone requires a certain amount of emotional energy, however minimal. We might be able to muster that energy for those we know, but if you start doing that for everyone you see, including all the random people that you pass on the street, that emotional burden starts to add up. Note that when I say “emotional energy” and “emotional burden,” I’m not just talking about the energy required to nod or smile. By greeting someone, you are putting yourself out there, which means you are putting yourself in a position to be ignored, shunned, mocked, etc. For as nice as it can be to make a connection with someone, it can be just as unpleasant to make that effort at a connection and be shut down.

Think about the last time you waved to someone and they didn’t wave back—how did that make you feel? It probably felt like rejection, even though that person probably didn’t wave back because they just didn’t see you. It takes an emotional toll; it makes you feel a little bit worse than you did. Now multiply that by every random person you passed on the street today, taking into account the fact that they probably would have seen you but ignored you anyway because they thought you were a crazy person.

So, no, I don’t think it is practical to attempt to greet everyone you see, nor do I think such a campaign could ever be successful. In the process of writing this entry, though, I have come to realize that the greeting is not what is important—it is the connection. At the risk of putting words into the mouths of those students, what I think they are really trying to do is get people to be more considerate of others in general, to get people to think of themselves as part of a much larger, interconnected community.

This may sound like something of an odd thing to strive for in a society such as Korea. After all, isn’t Korea a collectivist society? Well, I would argue against that—not that Korea isn’t collectivist, but that there is no such thing as purely “individualistic societies” and “collectivist societies”—but that’s not what lies at the heart of the matter. For the sake of argument, let us grant that Korea is a collectivist society. The problem is that everyone defines the “collective” in different ways depending on the situation. If it’s the World Cup, yeah, everyone is one big, happy family rooting for the national team. I remember being out in downtown Seoul supporting the Korean side against Italy with hundreds of thousands of my closest friends during the 2002 World Cup. I am very visibly not Korean, but I was wearing a Red Devil’s t-shirt and obviously shared a purpose with everyone there, so when Korea miraculously won that match, we all celebrated together.

Situations like that, though, are relatively rare. We do not generally encounter in our daily lives events that bring the entire imagined community of the nation together under one banner. No, most of our interactions are on a much smaller scale, and that smaller scale also brings a different understanding of the “collective.” To put it simply, we operate with two general sets of social rules: one for our in-group and one for our out-group. There are gradations to this, of course—we apply one set of rules to our friends and another set of rules to our co-workers, for example—but at the most basic level we divide our interactions into those with people we know and those with people we don’t know. Every society works like this; it is not a phenomenon unique to Korea. In my experience, though, the difference between in-group interactions and out-group interactions does seem to be quite stark here. This might be because of the emotional energy required for highly stratified in-group interactions—you have to expend so much energy making sure you maintain proper relationships with those in your in-group that you have little energy left for those in your out-group. Thus, you very rarely see people attempt to establish even minor connections (by greeting them, etc.) with others who are not in their in-group. At the risk of sounding melodramatic, if you don’t belong to my in-group, you are essentially invisible to me—or at best just part of the scenery.

Before I came to Korea, I read a book that was put together in the US to introduce Korean culture to foreigners, written from an etic (or outsider) perspective. I remember a few things about this book, some of which I later ended up disagreeing with. But one thing in particular has stuck in my mind, and I’ve struggled to come to terms with it throughout my time in Korea. It was a piece of advice, namely, that if you are robbed or mugged on the street, you should not shout “thief” (dodugiya!) you should shout “fire” (buriya!). Why? Because a thief is not anyone else’s business—the thief may have robbed you, but they’re probably not going to immediately rob anyone else—but a fire threatens the entire community. I remember thinking when I first read this that it sounded utterly ridiculous—surely this was an over-generalization and not actually true, right? Well, I do think it is an over-generalization, and probably influenced somewhat by a concept known as the “bystander effect” (although it might actually be better termed the “bystander fallacy”) but it does contain a kernel of truth. What the writers of that book were trying to say, in their awkward way, was essentially what I have been trying to say here: Unless someone has an existing connection with someone in Korean society, they are more than likely to ignore them.

This has been something that has been difficult for me to adjust to while living in Korea. Actually, if I’m going to be perfectly honest, it is something that I don’t really want to adjust to. My instinct is to help people, whether I know them or not. I won’t cite any specific examples here, but there have been numerous situations over the years where I have had the option to do nothing but have chosen to act—usually in very minor ways—even though the act marked me as a foreigner. That might sound like a silly thing to worry about, since—as I mentioned above—I could never be mistaken for a Korean, but I generally try to act in such a way that I don’t stand out anymore than I have to. But there are certain things that are a part of who I am, even if they are “foreign,” and in the end I have to be true to myself. Unless you can make peace with those aspects of life in a foreign country that you may understand but will never be able to accept, you will never fully adapt to life there.

We have reached that part of the entry where it feels like I am starting to babble a little, so I’ll try to wrap things up. While Korean society is far from unique in having in-groups and out-groups, the difference between the attention paid to those in one’s in-group and those in one’s out-group can feel rather stark. While I have certainly seen things change in my time here, public courtesy is still not quite a universal concept. Greetings are probably one of the most obvious instances of such courtesy, and for all that I said above about the “emotional energy” required to greet someone, the energy requirement is relatively low compared to other manifestations of public spirit. Given that, I suppose it’s not a bad place to start if you’re trying to get people to think outside of the carefully prescribed boundaries of their in-groups. I wish I could have been able to organize my thoughts like this when I was talking to those students, but it took quite a lot of thinking—and writing and rewriting of this entry—to arrive at this point. The chances that they might ever read this are probably as close to zero as you can get, but I do appreciate having been given the opportunity to work through some things that I’ve been thinking about for many years.

Send me your thoughts.

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