Friday, December 31, 1999

the utterly useless workshop

[Originally posted on Thursday, December 14, 2017, at 12:50AM.]

In case I didn't make it obvious the last time I wrote on this topic, I can't stand corporate workshops, especially the Korean-style ones. Don't give me any fucking games to play, or chants to chant, or slogans/buzzwords to repeat mindlessly. And for the love of Cthulhu, don't make me participate in the CEO's cult of personality.

On Wednesday, all this and more came to pass: a few weeks previously, our CEO had sent around an email "inviting" my company's teachers—and those of us who work in R&D—to attend a workshop to "learn" about our CEO's notions of how to teach grammar—an approach that the CEO describes as "mƏssage grammar."* I initially had no idea what "mƏssage grammar" was, but I understood that the CEO, who only recently got his doctorate, has been pushing this notion, which is a central concept in his dissertation on language education.

As is par for the course with Korean events, the venue location was changed at the last minute from one of our company-owned spaces to another. I'm not sure whether to be thankful that the new space was closer to my current office, but it turned out to be a walk of barely 150 meters to the "Classia" Building, which houses a bakery that I like.

That morning, I was lucky to wake up on time: both my cell phone and my analog alarm clock failed to wake me at 7AM; I ended up arising of my own accord at 7:50AM, which gave me time to shower, dress, and catch a cab to reach the meeting place. I got there with about five minutes to spare. Many expat teachers were already in the building, gathering by the tiny elevator to go up to the fourth floor. I took the stairs; no one followed me.

When I reached the fourth floor, the pre-meeting chaos hit me with a wall of sound. Expats were everywhere. My twatty coworker was there; she told me there was a seating chart (a chart for hundreds of people!) that specified I should be seated in the goddamn front row. Fuck whoever made that chart. I stepped into the large room, which was filled with row upon row of two-seater desk/tables, and made my way slowly to the front. The room was full and getting fuller; it was quite the crowd. Teachers had come to the event from all of the nearby campuses; some had come from as far away as Ilsan, where I used to live during my second semester of teaching at Dongguk University. That's a long subway ride for a meeting beginning at 9AM.

If you've never been to a Korean corporate workshop, it usually works like this: there are speeches, possibly followed by some lectures. For a mostly expat meeting, there will be group activities; for Korean employees, there's usually just more lecturing, possibly by a series of speakers. Along the way, there will be collective chants—often of dumb slogans seemingly made up on the spot. For Koreans, the idea of "together-action" (dong haeng) is an important one: in a crowd, you energize each other, and the convivial glow of this energy somehow infuses the group with a welcome synergy. This is about team-building; this is about becoming one with the corporate entity. As a coworker of mine said at the meeting: "It's like church."

Our meeting roughly followed the above-explained format, but the CEO, knowing that he was dealing with Westerners, often stopped his discourse to interact with teachers whom he knew by name. There was lots of laughter at the CEO's lame jokes, and we finally got a glimpse of what the CEO was talking about with his "mƏssage grammar."

As it turns out, the CEO's most cherished innovation is no innovation at all. Let me explain. When he finally talked about what "mƏssage grammar" was, the CEO said it had everything to do with how utterances change meaning in context. Example: if I issue a flat declarative like, "That pizza looks delicious" while I'm staring at a photo of a pizza on a menu, then the utterance gives you a clue as to my state of mind. If, however, you've got a pizza in front of you, then I come up, stare lovingly at your pizza, and intone, "That pizza looks delicious," I obviously mean that I want to eat some or all of your pizza. The social context helps determine the meaning of the utterance. The CEO calls this context-dependency "mƏssage grammar" because the context governs what "message" you're sending... but there's already an entire branch of linguistics called pragmatics that studies this very phenomenon! The CEO's big idea has been around for ages! The man merely borrowed or stole it.

With that realization, I became even more convinced that this entire event was a waste of time. My rule is this: if you can say it in an email, then you don't need to have a meeting. It didn't help that the CEO was presuming to teach us about grammar despite how poor his own English was. It also didn't help that the CEO, at one point, utterly misinterpreted and misused the concept of a dangling modifier. He said—and I wrote this in my lecture notes to preserve this gem for posterity—that we should "learn how to use dangling modifiers properly." Had I not been in the middle of a creepy cultic ritual, I'd have laughed out loud. A dangling modifier is a mistake that needs to be corrected, not a concept to be employed properly. In the end, I didn't have the courage to stand up and call out the CEO for his bullshit.

The North Korean-style ass-kissing by the Westerners at the event was painful to watch. Our company is filled with lifers who either adore the CEO or make a good show of such adoration. I watched expat teachers who, when handed a microphone, did little more than praise the CEO for his depth of knowledge and inspirational character. Later on, after we had done the workshop-style group activities, there was a Q&A period during which I heard boot-licking questions like, "What inspired you to create this company?"

Above, I mentioned a group-work activity. Almost three hours into the meeting, we had to break up into groups and go into separate classrooms for this part of the workshop. Our task—creating a lesson plan to teach kids how to summarize news articles—was actually somewhat interesting, but it was also fairly high-pressure work, as we had little more than 25 minutes for a group of fifteen of us to create a lesson plan, decide how to present it to the audience, and devise a chant to, uh, energize the group. Our team's chant, in the Korean corporate ass-kissing tradition, contained our CEO's name.

The event had been scheduled to end at 1PM, but as per Murphy's Law, we ran overtime. That was one last kick in the ass. My only consolation is that the workshop took place during work hours, unlike that weekend retreat.

To anticipate the unsympathetic reader: no, signing up to work in a Korean company does not mean that I've agreed to join the hive mind. Even many Koreans, when privately questioned about their attitude toward these events, will tell you they think such workshops are a waste of time. We're all individuals in the end—even the most group-oriented among us. Many of us can't stand being part of a cult of personality, which is another reason why I'm probably not going to renew my contract come September 2018.

*I'm writing it as "mƏssage," not "message," to make the term harder to Google, especially given the tone and content of this post. Ass coverage.


  1. No meeting is totally worthless. It can always serve as content for a great blog post!

    I guess after all these years working for Uncle Sam I've come to accept the frustrations inherent in government service. As I've been known to say "I don't mind wasting time as long as I do it productively."

  2. I know this makes me a horrible friend, but I found this all very funny.

  3. The USA: Mandatory diversity-training seminars.

    The ROK: Mandatory uniformity-training seminars.

  4. John & Charles,

    Yes: my suffering is your entertainment. Here's more suffering for you: I got into a stupid argument with my boss today because he refuses to acknowledge that the word "combination" can, in some cases, be synonymous with the word "set." (Think about how it's a "combo meal" in the States and a "set menu" in Korea. A combination doesn't have to mean a fusion-into-one, which is what my boss is thinking. He's a good guy, but he gets into these stubborn moods, and it becomes impossible to discuss anything with him.)


    Yup, that's it. I don't think I'll be going to another of these sessions, especially if it's all about sucking the CEO's dick. If they threaten to fire me, then fuck 'em—I don't want to work for a company that's that petty. Meantime, the longer I'm here, the more the place feels like a cult. I think three years ought to be enough of a sacrifice at the altar of the CEO. If I choose to stay one more year, it'll be because I'm a whore who's in it for the money.

  5. I've always hated b.s. like this. But when absolutely forced to attend, I've learned to show up just early enough for people to see my face before disappearing until the nonsense gets underway and then slipping in to the far, far back of the room until the monumental waste of time is over.

    And as of 2017, it still amazes me that the democratic South is still so similar to the tyrannical North in its society based on the cult of worship to instill both fear and obedience to its masses. And while the South doesn't execute its dissenters, being fired or shunned by the cabals can be just as effective a measure in destroying the lives of those not in step with their economic overlords.

  6. Wait until your boss finds out that, mathematically speaking, a combination can be a type of set.

  7. J from D,

    I wish I could have just disappeared, but some fucker arranged for me to be seated in the very front row, right under the CEO's nose. There was a name tag with "KEVIN" written on it, right at my spot, so if the spot had remained empty, relevant people would have known that KEVIN was absent from the proceedings. I suppose I could have made a break for it when the lecture ended and we transitioned to group work, but by that point, I felt resigned to my fate. As I said in the post, though, the event took place during work hours, so this wasn't as much of a burden as the weekend retreat had been.


    Scary thought. The world might end.



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