From the Reviews Section of the Delta Intercultural Academy ( 5/5/2003:

L. Robert Kohls,
Learning to Think Korean:
A Guide to Living and Working in Korea
Yarmouth ME: Intercultural Press, 2001, pp.252, $25

Reviewed by Patrick Boylan,  e-mail: 
University of Rome III, Rome, Italy

This is a love story -- a great love story. Not only, but in conveying through every page his fascination for Korea, the author gives us a model of how we intercultural researchers and trainers ought to present to our publics -- students, company trainees or fellow researchers -- the cultures we, too, have made ours.

The first words say it all: "This book is dedicated to the people of Korea who taught me not only all I know about Korea, but also much about my own country, America, and about Life, and about who I am." How many of us can say as much about the countries we claim to know and love – or even a spouse or partner?

Like all true lovers, the author seems to have assimilated many of the ways of this beloved. He excels, for instance, in being unassuming. The meticulous bibliography, usefully (and un-academically) grouped under subheads such as Korean Music or Korean Economics, contains some 162 references to volumes and articles -- none by the author (whose best sellers contain much material on Korea). He does mention one of his works, on American culture, but only at the end of a footnote. Now THAT is self-effacement!

And, like all lovers, the author claims his beloved is unique. Unlike most, he proves it. We learn, for example, that although Confucian calm and Buddhist resignation to fate characterize Koreans, stress-related deaths in Korea outnumber all other kinds. And that an amazing 11% of Koreans are Catholics (1% in Japan). We learn that we should never criticize Korean office colleagues, let alone superiors, to their face; yet we discover that in Korea it is permitted to do so, even grossly, during evening drinking sprees (a practice we are encouraged to engage in, to avoid seeming like standoffish foreigners). We learn page after page how hostile to innovation the Koreans are, yet we also learn that they have more registered Internet domains than in the United States, 40% of their homes have broadband multimedia access and 7 of the top 20 most-visited web sites worldwide are theirs. The twain do meet, it would seem, in Cyberspace.

An amazing mixture that both breaks with and reinforces stereotypes. How to make sense of it all?

Kohls begins, as good intercultural training practice dictates, with critical incidents that the reader is invited to resolve (suggested answers are given). Key values come out of the discussion and these are then explained in terms of religion, history and ethos. Following chapters apply these behavioural norms to everyday life and 40 pages show how they apply to the business world, including 4 pages on running training sessions in Korea (for trainers new to Asia, these alone are worth the price of the book).

Kohls also proposes, as an explanatory device, a specially-created list of cultural dimensions or polarities. He does not attempt, as many interculturalists do, to present dimensions which (supposedly) describe all cultures. He presents a specifically Korean list of polarities: on the left the traditional values and on the right, in contrast with them, the largely American-inspired emerging values which have taken root in Korea (some in highly idiosyncratic ways). Thus he presents a single culture in a dynamic perspective: Koreans are seen as fluctuating between traditional values and American-inspired variants which they seek to adapt to their traditions. By introducing into his representation the notions of time, movement and mutation, Kohls offers a genuine contribution to intercultural theory, something like the introduction of the notion of vectors (directional points in space) in physics to describe moving bodies.

Thus the reader comes to see why it is so hard to portray the culture of present-day Koreans (and, we might add, of any human being): we have to learn to see the value behind a particular behaviour as part of a flux. In the case of present-day Koreans, Kohls lists the changing values we should pay most attention to. First (to name just a few) the ones that are desperately hanging on (e.g., spirituality > materialism; fatalism > control over events); then the ones that are mutating into Western-style values but with a difference (e.g., birthright inheritance > self-help; harmony first > efficiency first); finally the highly sensitive values that have resisted change (e.g., indirectness > directness; group orientation > individualism).

Moreover, Kohls adds, to fully appreciate the direction these values are taking, we must bear in mind:

"...the reciprocal influence of value change and economic development on each other. The more the change in values has affected the course of economic development, the more economic and technological forces must have driven changes in values." p.63

The above formulation -- two sentences written in everyday language -- is, I might add, an amazing condensation of a key concept in Gramsci's reinterpretation of Marx's explanation of historical change (cultural hegemony as a compounding factor in the structure versus superstructure dialectic).

What does all this mean in practical terms?

It means that the reader is now equipped to grasp what he or she should be looking for in a Korean interlocutor's apparently contradictory behaviour, or rather in the fluctuating value determining that behaviour. And, given that value's vector, how she or he should react to it (or re-utilize it)

Does a traditional value enhance economic productivity? Then build on it, by all means, since the Koreans will be doing so! Does an economic or technological change enhance emerging Korean cultural values? Then build on it but expect some resistance, especially if the emerging values can also be interpreted as a sell-out to (or imposition by) the West. Does a traditional value hinder economic productivity? Then give it just face recognition in your dealings with Koreans (but be emphatic in doing so), unless it safeguards class privileges, in which case revere it as a god. And, before you leap to the conclusion that productivity is being hindered by some cultural practice, remember that gain is seen as the fruit of a long-term "course of development", not as the result of quick fixes.

All this comes out of the two sentences quoted above -- when, of course, interpreted in the context of the whole chapter. Impressive.

Shortcomings in Kohls' work?

The author describes the epochal change in urban Koreans' value systems in the 1960's, due to the impact with the massive numbers of Americans there as military attachés and Christian missionaries and business people making sure Korea stayed in the Western camp. But the author does not explain why that impact did not provoke symptoms of mass depression and passivity – or the Stockholm syndrome or again revolt among intellectuals – as happens when a people's cultural heritage is challenged by the wealth and efficiency of a "colonial" culture. (Compare, for example, the Indians under British rule in Gandhi's autobiography, My experiments with truth, or the Algerians under French hegemony in Albert Memmi's Portrait du Colonisé [Paris: Gallimard 2002 (1957)] or Native Americans today as described by Paula Gunn Allen in her Studies in American Indian Literature [New York: MLAA, 1983].)

A more serious shortcoming in Learning to Think Korean -- but one common to all cultural descriptions -- is the impression that the author is not really describing the target culture from "the native's point of view" nor giving us "his relation to life... his vision of his world" as Malinowski argued an ethnographer should do (Argonauts of the Western Pacific, New York: Dutton, 1961 [1922], p. 25). That is to say, one has the suspicion that the author is, like so many lovers (Benjamin Constant's Adolphe comes to mind), talking more about himself than about his loved-one: more about the Korea HE discovered and came to know and love than the Korea that Koreans find absolutely commonplace. In other words, the book suffers from the inevitable latent ethnocentrism that Malinowski sought to go beyond. What is more, given Kohls' upbringing, it is a latent American ethnocentrism.

Does all this sound familiar? Alas, overly familiar. An enormous number of intercultural studies are, in effect, simply works about how much trouble middle Americans have, in coming to grips with cultures different from theirs. Of course, it is not surprising that this is so, given the origin of intercultural studies in the U.S. (with the Peace Corps program in the 1960's, with which Kohls himself was involved) and the huge impetus given to intercultural studies by multi and transnational enterprises based in the U.S. (although European -- especially German -- enterprises are beginning to show how such studies can in fact be done differently and more advantageously). What is surprising is that this American ethnocentrism has become so pervasive that even European interculturalists often write in the same vein. Thus the cultural polarities that Hofstede or Trompenaars (two Dutchmen) propose seem designed to clarify, above all, the kinds of problems Americans have when working abroad. The polarities
may adequately explain many of the problems Americans have in getting their particular assertiveness and disregard for elders accepted by most people around the world.
But what about the kinds of problems that people who are NOT Americans have in dealing with people of other cultures? What polarities would THEY find most helpful for understanding interpersonal differences? Not many of us in the intercultural field have proposed alternative systems. Some interculturalists even feel there is no reason to.

For example, Gudykunst and Ting-Toomey (Culture and Interpersonal Communication, London: Sage, 1988, p.49) describe a qualitative study made by Asians for Asians years ago in order to provide more explanatory detail than Hofstede's dimensions in describing inter-Asian conflict; but the authors dismiss it as irrelevant since Hofstede's dimensions correlate with it and thereby are sufficient as overall indicators.

But surely culture-specific parameters, not overall indicators, would be of more help in coming to understand specific interactional problems! Kohls sees the point and provides us with the very helpful list of specific Korean traits that we mentioned earlier – a list that contains, however, only those traits in conflict with (stereotypical) American values. Is no other kind of polarity useful for grasping Korean culture? From the author's perspective apparently not.

For example, we do not find in Kohls – nor in other intercultural studies to my knowledge – a polarity contrasting maturity and immaturity, such as
Such a dimension could usefully clarify the perceived adolescent brashness and intellectual immaturity of middle Americans that Koreans (as well as Dutch people, for that matter) often say they have trouble adjusting to. But since Americans don't see this as a problem, swoosh!, it disappears from intercultural adjustment studies, even those written by Dutchmen.

Thus, this deliciously described romance with Korea turns out to be an autobiography. Kohls' hymn to Korea is, between the lines, a hymn to the problems that he, as an American, had to overcome to know and love his adopted people and to appreciate the richness of what had seemed mere strangeness. This is not to say that his descriptions do not illuminate Korean thinking; this is merely to say that they do so, but principally from the standpoint of a bewildered American. European or African readers must then translate Kohls descriptions into their own cultural framework. This, of course, will be an easy task for most readers: popular American music and novels, Hollywood films and CNN broadcasts have made sure that every creature on our planet has learned to see as a problem what turns out to be a problem mostly for Americans. Thus it is probable that every reader, from whatever continent, will effortlessly be able to readjust Kohls' insights to their own perspectives.

Besides, good authors pitch their books to a particular public, not only for commercial reasons but also to provide a coherent perspective. So in the final analysis it may seem unfair to criticize How to Think Korean for addressing middle Americans' concerns -- if the author had adopted a European or African perspective for his explanations, he would have been equally ethnocentric. And if he had adopted a purely Korean perspective, he would have run the risk of not being understood by anyone (except Koreans). Malinowski's goal is a difficult one to attain, indeed.

But if it is unfair to fault Kohls for not having written a book for no particular public (publishers frown on that), he might at least have written How to Think Korean for his public of fellow Americans in a way that would help that public grasp the values they really live by. This would have given them a firmer vantage point from which to view Korea. And in any case, a good love story, as Kohls himself says in his dedication, ought to enable one to learn about oneself. Unfortunately, this does not seem to happen.

Take for example the polarity
which Kohls recasts (p.58) as
FORMALITY (Protocol, Ritual) <> INFORMALITY,
"informality" being the supposedly American value that Koreans are learning to adapt to. While Kohls helpfully reformulates the Korean polarity into more distinct values (protocol, ritual), he doesn't do the same thing for the American polarity. "Informality" is assumed to be an obvious and unproblematic characteristic of middle American culture ("Mainstream American society is certainly one of the most informal in the world", p.58).

But is this so? Can't so-called "informality" be just as much an imposed ritual as any protocol-defined behaviour? Take, for example, friendly salutations and first-name giving, usually considered to be signs of American casualness and friendliness. Foreign visitors to the U.S. have frequently commented on the highly ritualized use of friendly hellos and first-names among sales people, Help Line assistants, classroom language teachers and so on. And they have concluded that this pervasive cultural practice is actually a barrier to genuine contact. (See Kohls, pp. 82-83, on the related concept of alleged sincerity as a barrier.). A sure indication that American "informality" is in reality a formality may also be found in the fact that one becomes a social outcast (a "snob") by not observing it; indeed, one can even get fired if one don't practice it on the job, and not just as a Help Line assistant.

Thus, in the final analysis, American society, just like all others, has to be recognized as formal: ritual informality is a formality. So is accountancy a formality: tax forms that require computer software to master, college expense accountancy, dozens of savings schemes, family budgets – one's whole life reduced to numbers to an extent unknown in many other countries. Does this absence of quantitative forms make these other countries, where families and even small businesses do without budgets, "informal" by comparison? Hardly.

In conclusion, no culture may be said to be "informal". All societies impose forms on their members, covering every aspect of their existence, to prevent anarchy, maintain identity and preserve privileges. The polarity "Formal<>Informal" should therefore be used to indicate instances of rule-enforcement/rule-relaxation WITHIN a culture, not BETWEEN cultures (where overall rule systems are different).

This means that the real question to ask is another: What are the formalities trying to preserve? In the specific case of the U.S., what is American "ritual informality" meant to safeguard? Were Kohls to have asked that question, he might have reformulated his formal/informal polarity in a much more instructive way.

He might have proposed, for example, in place of
formal <versus> informal:
(informality: when you "level the field" of honorary titles and respect for age and intellectual refinement, etc., you eliminate the accumulated advantages of the others and can assert yourself more freely.
N.B.: You must still, however, respect accumulated wealth and religious titles, cornerstones of the formality prescribed by the Protestant Ethic.).

This kind of polarity would not only make Korean "formality" more understandable to Americans, but would also make American "informality" more understandable to Koreans. In addition, it is a better training device. It is difficult to get trainees, who are used to self-restraint through protocols, to "loosen up" and be "informal", i.e., transgress. What one can do, though, is to give these trainees another set of codes to apply diligently. In the case of American ritual informality, the trainees could be encouraged to express self-assertiveness as a goal. For example, the trainer could give them one point each time they successfully interrupted him, two points if their question got him to digress and three points if the digression concerned a topic useful to the interrupter to get ahead in his work. In carrying out such activities, the trainees would automatically see as obstacles (to be removed) any value thwarting their self-aggrandizement, such as DEFERENCE TOWARD TEACHERS – except wealth or religious status, to which they would have to show respect or loose points. This proactive approach makes informality a game with rules to invent -- which, as Wittgenstein wrote, all linguistic and social interaction is.

Other contrasting pairs of values seem equally weak on the American side of the clines. Take for example Status versus Egalitarianism. Kohls goes to great lengths to illustrate the Korean concept of in-groups (which enjoy privileges) and out-groups (which can be treated as dirt), as though it were a concept alien to "egalitarian" Americans. But is this so? If Koreans do not get upset over the homeless sleeping in doorways for the reason that "one need not be concerned with those who are not part of one's clearly delineated in-group", neither do most people in New York or Los Angeles. for whom the idea that all human beings are created equal and deserve equal treatment is supposed to be, according to the author, "a most cherished belief" (p.54). To be fair, Kohls does recognize the contradiction (on p.12) but then, somehow, passes right by it.

And what about Mexican fruit pickers in California (decidedly "out groupers" -- most do not even have a green card) who get patently unequal treatment? Not to speak of the innocent civilian Afghans and Iraqis at whose plight mainstream Americans have shrugged their shoulders for months and months as the killings go on because they are not part of the in-group ("our boys") and so do not have an equal right to life. The American concept of egalitarianism does of course exist in the minutiae of everyday interaction; but one begins to suspect that this is only -- like alms giving -- to cover up the gross disparities of a Darwinian social system.

Whatever the answer, we have to consider the existence of a double standard for in-groups and for out-groups to be a cultural universal, just like formality. This means it applies to America just as well as to Korea, even if Americans (as well as other people) may not want to admit it. The real question. therefore, is: Why do certain cultures profess their double standard and others refuse to see it? Silence. And what determines the in- and the out-groups within a given culture? This second question -- a real Pandora's box -- also goes unasked. But only by asking these things could Kohls devise polarities that would be meaningful from the American side as well.

In a word, the "Western culture" described in Kohls' book comes down to be the culture of westerns – that of the straight-talking, fair-and-square celluloid cowboy. A pity. While, as was said before, every European reader with a TV set knows that culture intimately and will therefore have no trouble understanding the comparisons, the American readers will have missed a chance to understand themselves a little better by comparison.

But this is nitpicking. It would be relatively easy for Kohls, if he were leading a training session, to get his middle American trainees to distance themselves from their own culture in order to enter into another, because training sessions are interactive. If the trainees became upset when their cherished beliefs about their own culture got challenged, Kohls could play for time, ask other trainees to offer support, alternate between flattering and less flattering views of the home culture, and so on. But as the author of a non-interactive book, Kohls did not have this opportunity and so by playing to the accepted views of his imagined readership – middle Americans with little previous knowledge about Korea or intercultural adjustment – he may have been simply keeping them from putting the book down.

Three cheers for L. Robert Kohls, then. The perfect intercultural study has yet to be written and, to extent that Malinowski's goal is self-contradictory, probably will remain so forever. Given his editorial constraints, given his readership, given the paucity of fine-grained cross-cultural constructs from which to draw (something for which we are all to blame), Kohls has done an admirable job. Learning to Think Korean is a must read for any intercultural trainer interested in Asia and a magnificent lesson in itself of intercultural communication.