Me vs Korean Company Culture: Episode 1

I was lying in bed late Monday night, trying to sleep, but a weird twitch in my side was keeping me awake. It felt like a second heartbeat in my upper rib, causing my arm to flinch involuntarily on the mattress like a fish on land. No matter how I positioned myself it persisted, until I eventually passed out from sheer exhaustion.

The next day, after consulting Dr Google, it turns out that the official name for this muscle twitching is not a “second heartbeat” but “benign fasciculations”, which can be caused by too much stress, caffeine, and not enough sleep. Benign fasciculations are also an early symptom of ALS, a terrifying muscle wasting disease that I’m not going to think about.

Stress, caffeine, and not enough sleep are surely used to explain a million other mysterious ailments, but lately, I have been a little stressed.

I live in a world of constant notifications.

At my Korean company, I’m contactable via phone, email, the intranet, and Kakaotalk messenger—on both my computer and phone. We’re generally expected to be available at any time, during work hours and beyond, and highly responsive.

Once, when I didn’t respond to a message on the intranet, five minutes later I received another message on Kakao.

Hana, did you take the day off today?

DID I TAKE THE DAY OFF BECAUSE I DIDN’T RESPOND TO YOUR MESSAGE WITHIN 5 MINUTES?

Constant distractions don’t make for good thinking or good writing, and yet the Korean workday is filled with them. The hidden cost of responsiveness and frequent communication is less productivity, creativity, deep focus, flow states, and stress.

The other problem with being “always on” is that it can be hard to switch off. On Sunday night, after staring at my laptop for hours at the Gongdeok b patisserie to meet a Monday morning deadline (my croissant was disappointingly dry though wtf), my brain was fried but I was finally trying to unwind. I’m about to dig into my 되지왕갈비 (barbecued marinated pork ribs) with a friend when my phone rings. I ignore it and return to my dinner. A few minutes later it rings again.

It felt like my Korean colleagues were trying to steal my time.  

Apparently there’s an academic name for this, which I came across in this excellent article about workplace productivity. A 2016 study discovered the phenomenon anticipatory stress—where employees stress out because they expect to be contacted at all hours. Interestingly, the researchers found that it’s not the amount of time spent on after-hours work emails, but the expectation to respond that leads to emotional exhaustion. In addition, they reported that people who prefer a strict separation between work and personal time have an even harder time detaching from work than those who are OK with blending work and home time. Which is me. (Ok, when I’m not working on the weekend.)

As an expat in a foreign country, the rules on communication get even more icky. Am I culturally expected to be glued to my phone all day? What about work-life balance or work smarter, not harder? Here, it seems to be just work all the time.

Recently in my Korean class I learned the verb 고생하다 which literally means “to suffer”. When you leave work for the day, it’s customary to say to someone 고생하셨습니다 – literally “you suffered or endured the day”, thanking them for their hard work. But I don’t believe that you have to “suffer” to produce good work—nor good art for that matter. I don’t believe in the virtue of long hours for their own sake. Of putting in time at the office just to show face, or futz around on the internet.

Fuck that.

When I feel that my personal time and space is threatened (and I don’t get paid enough to be on call all the time, frankly), I get defensive. I batten down the hatches. I realise that I’m in a foreign country and I have to respect the culture, but I also need to preserve myself and my wellbeing. That means communicating that I only expect to be contacted on the weekend if it’s truly urgent (it wasn’t).

We’ll see how it goes.

Until next time! And I’m sure there’ll be a next time…

x Hana

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