How Learning Korean Culture Improved My Relationships (as a non-Korean)
In early 2015, I was fresh out of a year-and-a-half long relationship. I was really dreading being single again.
My past relationships always came through work or friends. I didn’t have many friends at this time, and worked from home, so meeting someone new was going to take some effort.
So I decided to tried online dating, a great way for introverts like myself to meet people outside of the bar scene.
In the next year, I sent hundreds of messages on Match.com, OkCupid, eHarmony, PoF and any other dating app I could find besides Tinder (I wanted a relationship).
I went on dozens of dates, but something was missing: I didn’t really meet anyone I clicked with. The dates were fun, but I didn’t find anyone I wanted to be in a long-term, committed relationship with.
As a last resort, I decided to sign up for Tinder. If this didn’t work, I was going to ditch online dating altogether.
A few weeks in, I matched up with my current girlfriend, Sara. On paper, everything was great. She was career-oriented, attractive, and wrote in her profile “if you don’t read books, I’m not interested.” This was really refreshing!
Our first date went really well. She was confident, well-spoken, smart as shit, and sassy. Sara is also Korean, which I really dug.
This felt way different from any of my previous dates. We were straightforward and honest with each other from the start, and we both felt an immediate chemistry.
We ended up hanging out for over six hours on our first date.
Fast Forward Three Months
The first three months of our relationship flew by. We met all of each other’s friends, we went on a trip to Cabo together, she met my family–everything was going great.
Our first real fight was about food.
We were watching Madmen and I was hungry. She said she wasn’t hungry, so I made enough food for myself.
I started eating and she asked for some. My gut reaction inside was, “Uh no…this is MY soup.” I felt like a Kindergartener that didn’t want to share his toys with any of the other little kids in his class.
So I let her have some and she ate almost all of it, and it really pissed me off.
“I made this soup for myself, why didn’t she say she wanted some when I asked?!” I thought to myself.
We got into a pretty big argument (over soup!).
“I figured if we ate all of the soup, we could just make some more,” she said after we cooled down a bit. “This is how I was raised. In Korean culture, we share food. The food we prepare is ours.”
I was raised in the exact opposite way.
I have three other siblings, and grew up in the typical American household: it was first come, first serve. There was plenty of food to go around, but we didn’t really share.
The food on my plate was exactly that: my food. If I cooked, that was my food. If I ordered a meal at a restaurant, that was my food. If there were leftovers, those were my leftovers.
I shared this with Sara. She listened patiently, and when I was done, she shared a key part of Korean culture: jeong.
A Culture of Sharing
Jeong is a feeling of deep love towards the closest people in your life, that is often hard to describe in words.
When I asked several Korean friends about jeong, they all had a hard time coming up with a clear definition…which obviously didn’t satisfy my curiosity!
I did some more research and found a few other definitions:
- “Loyalty and commitment without validation, logic, or reason.” 
- “Interdependency and collectivism are highly valued, rather than autonomy, independency, privacy and individualism.” 
- “Sharing, being generous, being nice or being attached to someone or something.” 
- “A feeling of affection or attachment.” 
- “The Korean concept of jeong is a type of deep-seated love—it is the feeling of affection, concern, understanding, loyalty, warmth, and emotional connection to someone or something.” 
- “The notion of jeong is very complex, but it is basically the notion of caring for others and putting others before oneself.” 
As you can see, there isn’t really a clear definition of jeong, but a few themes are present.
Inner Circle vs. Outer Circle
Korean culture places a clear boundary between your inner circle and your outer circle. Sara explained that you only really feel jeong towards your inner circle. In fact, you may care very little for those outside of your inner circle.
Initially, I had a major issue with this. As an extremely empathetic person, caring so little for people outside of my inner circle was an issue.
Then it started to make sense.
Think of it this way…would you give a kidney to a random person at your local hospital who would die without without your kidney? For the sake of this example, let’s assume that this is a good person by the standard in which you would measure. I think it’s safe to say that most of us wouldn’t give a kidney to a complete stranger.
Now imagine the same scenario, but it’s your husband, wife, son, or daughter. Most of us wouldn’t think twice.
Should we feel bad that we would only donate a kidney to a very select group of individuals?
What Sara meant by “caring very little for those in your outer circle,” is simply being careful of who you choose to invest emotional energy into. Don’t completely disregard everyone outside of your inner circle; avoid investing too much emotional energy into people you aren’t close with.
Another example can be found in sharing food. When you eat with family, loved ones, close friends, or anyone you feel jeong towards, you eat together. The food you prepare together is our food.
Draw a clear line between your inner circle and outer circle. Improving the relationships within your inner circle should be the main priority, while continuing to cultivate relationships with those in your outer circle.
Reciprocity and Loyalty
Korean culture is built around an unspoken agreement of reciprocity and loyalty.
You do things for others without the expectation the favor will be returned, but knowing that the favor will be returned.
This might sound transactional, but I would describe this as loyalty.
Let’s use networking as an example. I’m a little skeptical when someone says they “network with no motive.”
You’re telling me you like meeting people just for the sake of meeting people? I have a hard time believing you don’t have a motive of some sort.
Here are a few examples:
- Building relationships with industry peers, so that eventually you’ll receive value in the form of customers, job opportunities, or simply companionship.
- Meeting growth-oriented individuals, so that you can build solid relationships and continue to advance in your career.
- Meeting influencers who you can help share their platform, so that you can grow your platform in the process.
Nothing is wrong with any of those motives.
You should be intentional with the relationships you build. Wouldn’t you want to avoid people who only receive value, but never give value? I certainly do.
Of course, that shouldn’t be the motive in the first place, but every happy/fulfilled/successful person I know has done a great job of severing relationships with people who only take value from them.
Be intentional about creating relationships in which loyalty is reciprocated. Be extremely loyal to those in your inner circle, and go out of your way to maintain their loyalty.
How can you incorporate jeong into your everyday life?
Here are a few thoughts:
- Where in your life can you think more in terms of “us” instead of “yours” or “mine”? Look for opportunities to work with your partner, husband/wife, or boyfriend/girlfriend. Create more alignment in your relationships.
- How can you incorporate more team think at work, with your business, or in your community so that everyone feels ownership? How can you make everyone involved feel like it’s “ours” instead of “mine”?
I’d love to hear your thoughts and how you’ve applied this to your everyday life in the comments below!
- Photo Credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/koreanet/6387715325/