Sunday, March 28, 2010

How to Persuade Koreans - Take Two

Dear Korean,

Whenever my Korean wife and I have a factual disagreement, we often refer to the Internet to settle the dispute. Since I am American, I often refer to western resources like news organizations, Wikipedia and even the UN site first. She's fluent in English, so I can't fudge the facts on her either. However, even if my wonderfully Korean wife knows she has been proven wrong by a number sites and resources, she often defaults to a Korean source. No result can be proven, no argument won, unless she sees it reported from a Korean source. Of course, when she pulls up Naver, I can't understand all the details as my Korean is not as strong as her English.

I have encountered this same attitude with many of my Korean friends as well. All of them refuse to believe anything unless it is reported in Korean, BY a Korean. And sometimes I even hear the exclusionary statement, "He's probably Korean-American." What gives? Why does my wife do this? Do I have to become fluent in order to properly debate?

The Expat

Dear Expat,

First, kudos to your excellent and informative blog. The Korean wonders where you got the inspiration. :)

Onto your question. The Korean can first think of one possible explanation is that your wife may not be as fluent in English as you think. It may sound incredible, but it is actually very easy for a native speaker to overestimate a second language learner’s language proficiency, especially if the second language learner appears to have a good handle on pronunciation or grammar.

The Korean’s situation is somewhat of a mirror image of yours. The Korean Fiancée immigrated to the U.S. at the age of 12, which means her Korean language development more or less stopped at around 6th grade level. The Korean Fiancée has very good Korean pronunciation and perfect grammar, which normally makes her 6th grade level Korean language skills undetectable.

But when the Korean Fiancée enters into a situation where she needs to speak at a higher level Korean, her limitations in Korean become very obvious. (This is usually when the Korean Mother is speaking to the Korean Fiancée.) Although the Korean Fiancée speaks grammatically correct Korean with nearly imperceptible accent, she simply does not know easy Korean words that, say, a Korean 8th grader would know. It would be fair to say that it would take her a significant struggle to read Korean newspapers.

It is only natural for native speakers to be somewhat ignorant about the subtle struggles of a second language learner. In our day-to-day lives, we rarely reflect on when we learned a particular word. (Did we learn the word “embark” during elementary school, or in high school?) It takes an even rarer reflection to think about someone else’s level of vocabulary. Once we hear someone speaking in correct grammar and pronunciation with sentences that make sense, we hardly think about the level of vocabulary with which the person is comfortable.

This is a real possibility – the Expat Wife may appear fluent, but she may have a hard time understanding any high-level English. And because of that, she just does not feel comfortable with the sources to which you point since she does not understand everything in those sources. That could be why she resorts to a Korean source so that she can feel more comfortable with what she does understand.

But then again, the Korean does not know the level of English fluency that the Expat Wife has. For all he knows, she could be an accomplished professor in English literature who can explain the intricacies of 9th century English expressed in Beowulf. If that’s the case, the Korean takes back everything he said up to this point.

Let's just make one rule clear:  if there is any remote reason to
put up a shapely picture of Angelina Jolie 
(like the fact that she was animated like this picture in the movie Beowulf,) 
the Korean will put it up. Ok? Ok.

The likelier possibility (that the Korean can think of) involves something more fundamental – namely, our understanding of persuasion. Particularly in Europe, North America and other Anglophone countries, there is a prevalent notion that “reason” is this free-floating entity that any “reasonable” person would be able to grasp. Under this theory, the identity of the speaker or the language employed by the speaker does not matter, as long as the speaker speaks with “reason,” which alone is enough to persuade other “reasonable” people.

More after the jump.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at

This theory – having its roots in Romanticism and/or Enlightenment – has an illustrious history that does not need to be discussed this post. It would suffice to say that it is wrong, all wrong. And the Expat’s experience precisely shows why that theory is wrong. Contrary to that theory, people – not just Korean people, mind you – deeply care about the identity and the language of the speaker in order to be persuaded. You would not listen to a doctor about how to fix your car, and you would not listen to a mechanic about how to improve your health. So which theory is more convincing: the theory that brands most people as “unreasonable”, or an alternative?

Aristotle, ready to pimp-smack Rousseau

Ancient Greeks knew better. Aristotle identified ethos, logos, and pathos as the three modes of persuasion. With ethos, the speaker establishes her knowledge and credibility. With logos, the speaker takes logical steps to her conclusion. With pathos, the speaker makes an emotional connection with the listener and convinces the listener to accept her conclusion. The fundamental flaw of the Romanticist/Enlightenment theory of persuasion is that it relies exclusively on logos. When the argument solely based on logic fails, the speaker of the argument often resorts to labeling her listeners as “emotional” or “irrational” instead of reflecting on the shortcomings of her own argument. (It is not a coincidence that expats in Korea frequently characterize Koreans as “emotional” and “irrational"!)

In fact, the Korean previously outlined the use of the three modes of persuasion when trying to be a constructive critic of Korea as a non-Korean. In that post, the Korean emphasized pathos, the emotional connection between the speaker and the listener. This time, the focus will be on ethos, i.e. the ability to establish the credibility of the speaker.

To be sure – as the Expat himself must certainly know – the way the Expat Wife acts (as described by the Expat) is not universal among Koreans. For most Koreans, it is more like a mild skepticism at non-Korean sources, not much different from any other people in the world. (Heck, the Korean doubts that the Expat Wife insists on a Korean sources for all topics, all the time.) And this skepticism is for a good reason. Even the most reputable English-language news organization often gets things completely wrong, because they operate out of the background knowledge that is different from Koreans’. This is particularly stark when such a news organization reports on Korea.

For a case in point, take a look at this article that an AAK! reader sent to the Korean. The headline of the article asks: “Will South Korea become Christian?” The article describes Yoido Full Gospel Church, one of the largest churches in the world with more than 750,000 members, and has a quote from a pastor in a box: “Sooner or later Christianity will be a major religion in Korea.” The article closes with this sentence: “But at a time of such rapid social change, few can confidently predict the long-term place of Christian faith in the country's future.”

The Korean was flabbergasted. Christianity has more than 200-year history in Korea! Pyongyang had so many Christians by the late 19th century that it was called “Jerusalem of the East”! More than 25 percent of all Koreans are Christians (both Catholics and Protestants.) The current Korean president Lee Myoung-Bak is a devout Christian (so much so that he was accused to favoring his church members when making cabinet appointments,) and so were two out of the three presidents previous to him. Christianity has already had a place in Korea for a pretty darn long time! A reporter working for freakin’ BBC – one of the most respected news media in the world – did not know this, and wrote an article wondering about the long-term place of Christianity in Korea? Seriously?

Saint Daegeon Andrew Kim (1821-1846), 
the first Korean Catholic priest, martyr and saint,
would roll over in his grave if anyone dared to question 
the long-term place of Christianity in Korea 

In fact, the Expat’s excellent blog has an example of this as well. Based on this study, the Expat previously wrote that parents who employ corporal punishment ran the risk of lowering their children’s IQ. But in his intellectually honest follow-up, the Expat noted that, despite very prevalent use of corporal punishment in Korea, Koreans on average actually have the highest IQs in the world.

The Korean actually thinks the entire IQ thing is dubious, but that is beside the point. The point is that many of the “facts” we consider to be set in stone are in fact highly malleable and context-sensitive. This, in turn, means that getting the correct context means everything when it comes to establishing what we consider to be facts.

This feeds directly into ethos. Establishing ethos is not just about saying, “I am a trustworthy person and I do not lie.” It is also about saying, “I know what I am talking about.” Unless you can establish that you (or the sources you employ to back you up) have the requisite background knowledge to adequately explain the situation at hand, you cannot convincingly say that you know what you are talking about.

The bottom line is this: many of the "facts" (not all, but more than you think) that Americans/Canadians/other Anglophonic people consider to be true are often inapplicable to Korea. This often happens because the provider of the facts either do not have Korea's situation in mind, or -- if they do have that in mind -- gets Korea's situation wrong. Because of that, it is completely rational to rely on a more trustworthy source. And for Koreans, that source will more likely be a fellow Korean, who presumably would have greater background knowledge about Korea to put a given knowledge in a proper context.

(Mind you, the Korean is NOT saying that Korean sources always have greater background knowledge or that they always put knowledge in a proper context. He is only saying that it is more likely, and therefore it is rational for Koreans to depend more on Korean sources.)

Which brings us to the Expat's last question: “Do I have to become fluent in order to properly debate?”

The answer is: OF COURSE! To be sure, even if someone are a racial minority immigrant, she can go on with her life without necessarily having to learn more than basic language and customs of her newly adopted home country. But if she, for whatever reason, do not become fluent in the language and assimilate into the society, there is no way in hell her opinion will be taken seriously in that country. That is true in any society. Being able to persuade and convince others in your society is a powerful function – it is a way in which you impose your will upon that society. It will never come for cheap.

Do not despair, Expat. As a fellow immigrant (or at least, someone who is residing in a different country from the one in which he grew up,) the Korean can completely sympathize. Really, this is what being a minority is all about. Upon his moving to America, the Korean had to quickly learn English in a manner that was by no means pleasant. The Korean also consciously erased his accent, word by word, until people could not notice that he learned English when he was 16. The Korean did not that for shits and giggles, you know -- the Korean had to do it in order to be taken seriously and to have a meaningful life and career in America. Could you imagine anyone reading this blog if the Korean wrote in broken, ungrammatical English? Even with pretty decent English, it is hard enough to convince people that fan death is real.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. For most Koreans, it is more like a mild skepticism at non-Korean sources, not much different from any other people in the world. (Heck, the Korean doubts that the Expat Wife insists on a Korean sources for all topics, all the time.) And this skepticism is for a good reason. Even the most reputable English-language news organization often gets things completely wrong, because they operate out of the background knowledge that is different from Koreans’.

    From my experience, this is the biggest factor, something I encounter frequently with both KoKos (Korean-Koreans) and native Japanese.

    An experience with "M," who is from Kansai, is a good example. She promptly gargles with water whenever she comes home from anywhere, and when I noticed this, I asked her why. She was dumbfounded that I had never heard of this as a measure for preventing colds because "everyone in Japan knows this" (and actually, I know some people in Korea who do this, too, but I'd momentarily forgotten when I asked).

    I was mildly skeptical, but only insofar as I'd never heard of that as a specific preventative measure and I couldn't imagine, if it were true, what the mechanism would be for prevention. So I looked it up, and lo and behold, there really were some studies that demonstrated it.

    Japanese studies, but they sounded, well, sound. And it was enough for the NIH to investigate. But the tone of the article was decidedly incredulous of the Japanese claim, calling it silly despite the evidence. And from that background, I could understand someone from Japan (or Korea) who has read in Japanese (or Korean) of research done in Japan (or Korean) being skeptical of English-language media that either omits it entirely or mocks it.

  2. I would also point out that ethos and pathos are especially important in Korea--and Westerners and Koreans establish these two appeals in different ways. Ethos is related to hierarchical Confucianism, but is less based on demonstrated experience and knowledge and more on age and background (e.g. if the mechanic was my aging uncle who attended Seoul University back in the day, I might listen to him for health advice over my fresh-out-of-Kyungbuk University doctor). Since Korean hierarchies do not exist in the Western media (we tend to try to use rational facts and referencing other sources to establish our writing ethos), the Expat's wife would naturally be skeptical of these sources since they do not meet her criteria of appropriate ethos. Pathos has similar problems; Koreans are very swayed emotionally by stories of one person suffering or achieving and Westerners are often swayed by overwhelming numbers and pictures of the devastation of buildings and such. I mean, of course both are swayed by both, but having graded enough essays where Korean students open with the story of one person losing his/her home to address the issue of global warming (seriously? that's the best approach??), I feel like the approach is just a little bit different.

    Feminist theory also critiques the West's over-reliance on rationality, but in different ways.

  3. It is also worth putting the shoe on the other foot, and recognizing that, to many westerners with extensive experience in Korea, we do tend to look with mild, or sharp skepticism at Korean media. After reading the "Kimchi is..." articles in the Korea Herald, and Kang Shin-who in the Korea times, and Yonhap News getting into an unbecoming 'you should understand korea more' snit about some journalist asking an embarrassing question, we take those sources with a grain of salt, and by extension, assume that other Korean news sources are equally, or more, unreliable.

    This is also because we focus on times when Korea's news media let it down, for example the 2008 Mad Cow scare, rather than the overwhelming majority of cases where they probably get it mostly right, but because they got it mostly right, it passes without comment.

  4. @Roboseyo

    Reminds me of Mark Antony's line: "The evil that men do lives after them. The good is oft interred with their bones."

  5. I'll just say that the funny part about this question is that both the expat and his wife are doing the same thing except from different cultures. The expat from an American culture and his wife from a Korean culture. I wouldn't be surprised if his wife is asking the same type of question on a Korean message board "Whenever we get into an argument with husband he always gets his information from American/English sources wikipedia, etc. Why does he do this and not use Korean sources?"

    Rather than typing out a whole essay I'll just say that different people/cultures look at things differently. I think every culture is biased to their own people. So your wife and friends are just making sure that the facts aren't culturally biased.

  6. lol, love the fan death reference

  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

  8. Umm and I would like to say to the Expat, that besides learning Korean, just be patient, and you will understand each other better surely.

  9. Kushibo,

    That comment about gargling was interesting, and I'm always looking at ways to become healthier, so I looked up information on the studies. They weren't even placebo controlled. What's with that?

  10. Bryan wrote:
    They weren't even placebo controlled. What's with that?

    One of the articles I found did indicate they had a control group:

    A total of 387 healthy volunteers were followed for two months during cold and flu season.

    One third of the participants were told to gargle with water at least three times a day, another third were told to gargle three times daily with a mouth rinse containing iodine, and the rest did not gargle at all.

    During the study, 130 people caught colds or other upper respiratory infections.

    There was no major difference in the rate of colds between the group that did not gargle and the group that gargled with the iodine solution. But there was a 36 percent decrease in infections in the group that gargled with water.

    Of course, that's not the same as using placebos. This is from five years ago and it's what I found in English. I'd have to look harder and probably have to look in Japanese (or possibly Korean or Taiwanese-Mandarin) for a more up-to-date study, assuming there is one.

    And that goes right back to the heart of this post. :)

  11. This comment has been removed by the author.

  12. I would recommend that The Expat take a look at the book "The Geography of Thought," which explains some of the difference between Eastern and Western thinking. While it does tend to make the same point over and over again, it is still valuable in ascertaining why Koreans are okay with some arguments that a westerner would consider illogical (e.g. Why is the air conditioning on? Because it's hot... Why is the window open? Because it's cold...).

    As The Korean stated, though, I think it mostly comes down to trust. People tend to trust what they can best understand.

  13. "And as for the BBC, when it comes to Korea, they clearly don't know what they're doing sometimes."
    The BBC gets a lot wrong.

    Also, I have noticed a similar problem in westerns from what you described. They think everyone is basically a westerner with a funny language, food and dress. They don't realize that very basic modes of thinking differ across cultures.

  14. Subjectivity has no place in proper debate. Reality is reality regardless of how one feels about it. 1 + 1 = 2, no matter if its a physicist, or a 6th grade drop out stating it. And the answer is still 2 regardless if I'm having a good day or a bad one.

    But AAK is correct, when attempting to persuade / alter another human's perceptions / views ethos and pathos are much more important then logos. This goes doubly in places where the culture focus's more on the prior two then the last one.

    Which in all honestly ... is deeply disturbing. As a species, are we so ruled by our own emotions and subjective views that it inhibits and blocks out our rational ability? Ones personal feelings should have no impact on the facts or material present.

  15. Koreans have gotten into the habit of tuning foreigners out because too many foreigners like to tell the Koreans what they can't do. If Koreans had listened to foreigners Korea wouldn't have a steel, ship, electronics or automotive industry.

  16. WoW! Enlightening this is! Changing my mindset you are!

  17. WHOA!! WHOA!!! I guess this explain pretty much why Koreans speak like that! I mean, the tone of their voices... I was really surprised when I first heard koreans speaking. I guess is all about ethos (ήθος) and pathos(πάθος) and not about grown-up people trying to be kids again. XD

  18. I'm Chinese American, and I completely agree that cultural mindset/background plays an extremely important role in persuasion and perspective.

    I'm alittle confused though, maybe you can clarify~~ The reasons you offer for why Koreans don't trust Western sources, is that Western sources have misrepresented Korea, and consequently, lost the trust of many Koreans. Also, Western sources can never understand Korean circumstances/mindsets as well as a Korean source can (Completely agree). However, this serves as an explanation for Expat's Wife's behavior ONLY if they're debating a Korea-related issue right? If Expat and his wife are arguing about something like the current American presidential election, shouldn't she, by your argument, trust the Expat's Western sources more?

  19. What are the Korean words that an 8th grader would know that a 6th grader wouldn't? (I'm a Korean btw)

  20. I would answer the letter by saying people cling very stubbornly to their ideologies, and, when these ideologies are challenged by counter evidence, people have fallback positions they go to: one of the first of these is to attack the credibility of the source of whatever the evidence is.

    You see this in internet 'arguments' all the time, of course, as you do in real life political discussions.

    (This is not exactly a new insight, of course. For an entertaining articulation of the point go to

    Koreans are very thoroughly indoctrinated with the Korean nationalist ideology, and American propaganda has, if anything, an even firmer grip on western minds, IMO.

  21. Let's not use "Western" to mean "Anglophone".

  22. Maybe you should learn your wife's language.

  23. Wow. Was the Korean just showing us how extremely intelligent he is? Or how good a writer he is? Because that's without a doubt. I thought I was reading an article a professor submitted in science circles. Very impressed!


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