A friend of mine from America sent me a message on my phone, and I wanted to answer it, but my phone is kind of old and decrepit, and as soon as I read the message, my phone died. I decided to answer the message here because I thought all the people who wanted to know about Korea might like the answer.
In the story she sent me, a woman said she had been in Korea, and she was sitting on a bus talking to her friend. While she was talking, an older lady turned around and shushed her telling her not to get so excited. The inference from the lady who wrote the story was that she thought she was too loud because she was American, but that makes no sense in Korea.
At first, the message completely confused me, but I thought about it and figured it out. You see, it makes no sense because the Koreans are louder than Americans. In America, we teach our children “inside voices” and “outside voices.” The whole culture knows what I am talking about. We speak quieter inside than if we are outside. We are taught from a young age to control our voices. However, the Koreans are not taught that. They are taught to speak up and be heard. They know nothing about inside voices and outside voices. They have one volume unless they are shy, and that is loud. When we first came to Korea, going to the food court drove me crazy because the people were so loud that you could hardly hear yourself think muchless carry on a conversation with someone else. When I walk through the grocery store, there are people all around the store on loud speakers screaming trying to get people’s attention to look at what they are selling. They absolutely drive me crazy! We went grocery shopping yesterday, and someone on a loud speaker saw us across the way and kept yelling in Korean, ”American! American!” I had no idea how he knew we were American and not from somewhere else, but we didn’t want what he was selling and tried to ignore him. It is terrible to be shopping with my daughter and be in a nice conversation about what we are going to buy, and then all of a sudden, we approach one of those people screaming in our ears! It interrupts the conversation. It is an advertising ploy, but it causes everyone else to talk a bit louder so they can hear each other and makes the grocery store unbearably loud. If you walk through the streets, there are people in vans or pickups with loud speakers advertising their wares or campaigning politically over loud speakers too. In that story, it had nothing to do with the volume on the bus because Koreans are noisy.
I will tell you what it could have had to do with. First of all, many Koreans don’t really carry on conversations the way we do. They say as little as possible. When they reply, it might just be one word, and the person they are talking to has to fill in the blanks and guess at what they want to say. If they decide to say a whole sentence, they don’t use the voice inflections like we do. Often, when they decide to use a whole sentence, their voice sounds mono toned. If that American woman was speaking with a lot of expressions and expressing herself, the older Korean woman may have felt it was strange. That could be why she said to her, “Calm down!”, but there are other reasons too.
Americans talk much freer than Koreans. Koreans are discrete about their topics discussed in public. Many Americans talk freely about sexuality. The gays in America are very vocal about being gay. However, if anyone is gay, and I haven’t met any in Korea for fourteen years, they will keep it to themselves. I only know they are here because I saw a small sign for a gay bar in Itaewon. I also made a statement about Korea not having gays when I first got here, and a young Korean man said to me. There are some, very few, but they hide, and no one knows who they are. In Korea, you just don’t let all the information out that Americans let out. Americans don’t understand that their explicit movies and attitudes shock Koreans. Americans are much more open on many topics than Koreans are. Americans may understand when to be loud and when not to be loud, but many of us don’t know when to keep our mouths shut. Some Americans will discuss anything. Koreans have limits on what they think should be discussed in public.
Look at Cher, in her sixties, she came out on the stage in her underwear. The girls from K-Po dress more scantily than the average Korean, but none of them would come out in underwear. I felt sorry for Daniel Radcliffe, Harry Potter, when I heard he got on stage, and they coaxed him to take his clothes off. That is not going to happen in Korean. If a celebrity did the things that Cher and Daniel Radcliffe did, they would be blackballed by the public. If there is any hint of scandal of any kind, the celebrities are no longer offered jobs. If someone took drugs, got drunk, got put in jail, or slept with someone they aren’t married to, here in Korea, they better just get read because their career is over in Korea.
Look at the Korean dramas. Some of them are on the web in English. I recommend “Secret Garden” or “Anyeong Francesca” if you can find them. They are extremely clean compared to American shows. There are limits to what Koreans will let be seen on their televisions. They have a higher standard of morality and a higher standard of what they is information for everyone.
However, at my university, the Korean girls did something I am embarrassed to talk about. They decided that girls get sick when their period comes, so they decided to campaign to be free from classes on the day their periods came. They hung big banners all over the school about it. When I was in school, the girls would never have done that in America, but I don’t know if they would do it now or not. Different cultures think different things are acceptable to talk about. When a topic may embarrass someone from one culture, it may not embarrass someone from another culture.
I especially understand this because there are topics that seem to embarrass me that don’t embarrass another Americans, and I have talked to my mother about it and researched it myself. There is a piece of American Indian culture lodged deep inside of me that won’t let me say everything a white person would say. I am only part American Indian, but my mother was basically raised by her Cherokee grandmother, and I have heard stories about how proper her grandmother was, and she passed it on to my mother, and my mother to me. It is almost an instinct because I really feel it. My older sister didn’t get the feelings that I did. She is freer, more like my dad’s family, and it made us completely different types of personalities growing up.
Each culture is different about what they think is acceptable to talk about and what is not. I made a comment about someone’s grammar who was speaking English as a second language. It wasn’t made in a mean spirit, but just an observation. I am an English teacher. I have been trained to hear things like that. My comment was not about my Romanian friend, but when she heard my comment, she got mad because the guy was Romanian who said it. Romanians are very proud of their talent with languages, and they don’t want anyone saying they made a mistake. I really learned that! She was really mad when I didn’t mean any harm. He was showing off, and while showing off, made mistakes. I used to never say anything, and the reaction of some people sometimes makes me wonder if I should shut up again sometimes.
The point is, the Korean woman on the bus was not shushing the American woman because she was loud. It could have been how she was expressing herself. It could have been her topic, but it was not her volume. Many Koreans are loud mouths because it is part of the culture. They don’t run around screaming and yelling. They just talk loud. They are like the little boys with one volume the mother or teacher has to sit down and explain inside “inside voices” and “outside voices” to. No one has every explained it to the Koreans. It helps them when they sing because they sing from their stomachs rather than from their throats like Americans. One of the first things that voice coaches in America has to do is to teach their students to sing from their stomachs, not from their throats because they sound better singing from their stomachs, and there are many naturally good singers in Korea because they sing from their stomachs.