Leadership Lessons on the Road: Images of S Korea that Reveals Its Cultural Values

On my recent trip to Seoul, I captured a few pictures with my iPhone, that speaks volumes of the Korean culture.

This is a poster for the Information board at the airport.  How she looks: the heart symbol, the leg position, the smile, the age of the young woman all speaks to the typical look and feel that I get when interacting with younger Korean women.  They are generally very sweet, helpful, polite, and don’t take up much space (both with their physical body and energy).

What is lesser known is that these soft young girls grow up into soft demure looking women, until her strength is tested.  She is fierce, full of fire, and a force to be reckoned with.  Unlike her counter part in the West, she plays a stealth game.  It was explained to me by my Korean friends.  They don’t show their strength unless it is pushed and is the last resort.  Because as they said “it’s not smart or safe to be loud and confrontative in the negotiation.  It is better to come in soft, maneuver around gently and sweetly, until they have to pull out the big gun.”  Korean women run the household, control the bank account, buy and sell real estate, and manage the children.  Korean men, hand over the pay check, get an allowance, and try to stay out of their wives’ way.

This picture is of a customs counter at Incheon airport,.  It’s the last chance for people to fill out the immigration card before talking to the officers.  Look! they have magnifying reading glasses for elders.  It’s a culture that respects and takes care of older people.  At first glance that was what I thought.  Until I dove deeper.

In my coaching training classes, the audience is made up of a lot of men who are over 50.  When asked what compelled you to come here, the overwhelming response is “I am over 50 year old, my company has no more use for me.  I am supposed to retire soon, and I want a new challenge to do.”  Again at first, it sounds very similar to all other cultures and countries that I have been to.  Until they choose to reveal more.

Unlike in the States where people dream of their retirement so they can play golf for the rest of their lives.  In Korea, hard working men are retired (not by choice) at a very young age of 50 something.  They feel a deep sense of shame, abandonment and rejection from their company.  They loose their identity and their sense of worth.  Many of them resort to drinking or worst, committing suicide because they are so ashamed and lonely.

Etiquette bell in every female toilet stall at the airport.

I think the name is funny: Etiquette Bell.  If you push this button, will someone brings you some etiquette?

The bell feels very comforting to me.  How often do we, women sit down and realize that there is no toilet paper, or worse….

But to be honest, I have not had the courage to push that button.  I keep imagining, red light flashing and loud speaker announcing “Woman in stall no. 3.  Stall number 3 needs help.  Needs some etiquette.  Send some etiquette to No. 3!!!”  Will someone really come running to bring me more toilet paper? Is it linked to some poor woman’s cell phone? or does it even work?

Either way, I don’t want to wreck the illusion, that there is help if I need it.

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