Wednesday, February 27, 2019

the Friday question: is that your final answer?

So here's an update on whether or not our R&D team gets Friday off: the human-resources department weighed in and said we do get this Friday off. The reasons for this are many, but the predominant reason has been the number of complaints from faculty and staff about not getting so-called "red days" (i.e., national holidays) off. You'll recall that I had to work on New Year's Day at the beginning of this year, which has never happened to me before, even while working at this goofy company from 2015 through 2018.

Our immediate supervisor is telling us that we'll "act as if we're getting Friday off," even though he still hasn't heard back from our department's head for the final pronouncement. We (my supervisor and I) had several stupid and useless conversations about things like chain of command, flow of information, and why no one ever seems to chart anything out so that everything's in writing and there's no ambiguity.

I think part of the reason is that Koreans tend to prefer ambiguity to clarity, which is why they find it so difficult to commit to a specific position on anything. They prefer clarity only in those situations where clarity is imposed with the force of doctrine, e.g., when taking a multiple-choice test and knowing that only one answer out of four is the objectively, absolutely correct one. Because the objectivity is being imposed "from above" or "from outside," so to speak, by whatever authorities designed the test, it's fine that only one multiple-choice answer is correct. (Koreans love multiple choice. They hate essays.*)

But in situations requiring actual thinking, actual decision-making, and clear communication far in advance of the advent of any potential problems, Koreans suffer from gyeoljeong-jangae (결정장애), or decision-making disorder. All of this speaks to the larger issue of taking responsibility. Koreans don't think in individualistic terms; for them, responsibility is necessarily diffused. So when it's suddenly incumbent upon a single person to make a crucial decision, that person will do what he or she can to fob the decision off onto someone else. (This is, by the way, just as true in non-Korean bureaucracies.) If an authority comes along and makes a brute declaration, then everyone who's lower on the hierarchy sighs in relief because the crucial decision has been made by someone brave enough, and with enough authority, to make it. But if no such authority seems to be present, and a crucial decision must be made, everyone shrinks from the responsibility of making it. It's a bureaucratic version of the bystander effect. There may be historical and cultural reasons for why this problem is particularly acute in South Korea, but I can't even begin to speculate about that.

Upshot: Koreans love ambiguity and complexity, and they hate clarity and simplicity. "Hmmm," they'll say, when you ask a seemingly simple yes/no question. "That's a very complicated matter. Let me think." This is how Koreans conduct business (where reneging on contracts is commonplace because "the situation has changed," i.e., "we're congenitally incapable of committing to a fixed position"), how they conduct diplomacy ("This is a very delicate matter, so let's discuss this at our next summit, six months from now."), and how they behave in everyday life ("Hmmm... hard to say."). Unless they're responding to the clear downward flow of authority in an explicitly hierarchical situation, Koreans are often at sea when the time comes to choose a fork in the road. Like Yogi Berra, when they see a fork in the road, they take it.**

Maybe there's something to be said for the ways in which Koreans refuse to dichotomize. Reality is often more complex than a simple binary choice. Dualism, as Buddhism in its various strains preaches, is a cognitive and even a moral trap that actually deprives us of the freedom to respond fully and naturally to any given situation. And that's all fine on a philosophical level, but on the practical level of trying to get a straight fucking answer about whether we do or don't have this coming Friday off, Korean bureaucratic indecisiveness and imprecision are annoying as hell.

Anyway, it seems we have Friday off. But with my left hip joint still acting up, I'm probably going to cancel my hike. This isn't a huge deal; we'll be moving into spring in a few weeks, and I'll have nearly two months of decent walking weather in which to do the 60K trek. There'll be plenty of time to heal up and walk long.

*This is why, whenever I'm forced to design multiple-choice exercises for our textbooks, I subvert the "only one right answer" paradigm and design questions with two or even three correct answers. In such cases, I leave instructions for the student to "choose as many answers as are correct." And I always leave at least one question with only one correct answer—just to fuck with their heads. Ha!

**There are other times when Koreans show decisiveness, but this is what I might call prescribed decisiveness. For example, when I was in mourning after my mother's death, my Korean buddy JW brusquely told me,"You have to move on." This was a stock response that doubtless had roots in how JW had been raised to handle death. Whether the sentiment itself was wise or unwise, the automatic way in which it was delivered felt cold and callous. Koreans (and I imagine this is true in all other cultures) learn prescribed ways to respond to certain situations. Perhaps we all have our stock responses to things like death, but my point here is that Koreans will, on occasion, evince a kind of definiteness not seen in other aspects of their daily interactions. Korean mothers, raising their kids, seem pretty definite when they respond to their children's misbehavior. They may be less so in teaching their kids about morality, which is a fairly flexible, nebulous notion in Korean society to begin with.

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