Written by Jenny Han
South Koreans living under the uniformity of an almost too strictly regimented society are not left much room for personalized preferences and tastes. Take for an obvious example of the country having the highest per capita rate of plastic surgery in the world. Instead of celebrating quirks or camouflaging flaws, there exists this burning desire of most to fit inside a very narrow scope of what’s seen as handsome or beautiful. Further and more importantly, these individuals, from being submerged in such a collectivist culture, tend to carry out a social phenomenon called face-work – quite similar to what is often referred to as “image-making” in Korean society. Simply put, everyone not only aspires to look but also act in certain ways that have been deemed acceptable. Individual expression is almost savagely suppressed.
In fact, all human societies possess face-to-face interactions as well as non-verbal conducts and common language to which this face-work can be applied. The “face” is defined as the positive self-image, dignity or prestige, which an individual holds when interacting with others. Once an individual offers this positive self-image of him or herself to others, that individual feels a need to maintain and live up to that image. Inconsistency in how a person projects him or herself in society risks embarrassment and discrediting, and, therefore, people remain guarded, to ensure that they do not show themselves to others in an unfavorable light. These general principles of social interaction and face-work become exceptionally apparent in human settings that push participants to share an identical backstage – as with South Korea.
It was mentioned earlier that the face is the positive social-image a person claims to be his or hers, but in doing so, he or she must also take a “line” – a pattern of certain actions, both outwardly spoken and not, which a person uses to express his interpretation of social situations and evaluation of the other participants and himself. It seems like what actually matters though is the line that others assume he or she has taken and not the line he or she thinks he or she has taken. Individuals are said to maintain their face when the line they have taken is supported by others and the facts of the situation. When in face, individuals are confident and self-assured, and when out of face, they are flustered, although someone with poise is able to conceal his or her "shamefacedness". Face-work refers to the actions these individuals need to take in order to keep consistent with their face. South Koreans show a natural tendency to be much more heavily concerned with carrying out this face-work than others – doubtless due to the fact that such shamefacedness has a much, much higher degree of impact in a society of uniformity versus one without.
In carrying out face-work, and acting a certain way to make whatever he or she is doing consistent with face, the individual chooses one of two processes: avoidance in which the person tries to avoid face-threatening incidents from the start or corrective in which the person tries to repair the interaction after his or her face has already been lost. Avoidance then consists of two different types: the defensive and protective, protecting one’s own face and protecting someone else’s face, relatively. The latter involves the act of tactful blindness. Perhaps such is the reason behind many tourists as well as immigrants finding a lot of South Korea to be unfriendly towards foreigners – defensive and protective of their face.
Public, homogeneous settings expect individuals to be prepared for face-to-face interactions, and such preparation is often achieved through disciplined management of personal actions and appearance – an overall personal front, including but not limited to factors like clothing, make-up, and hair, as well as cleanliness. When already placed in a highly interactional social situation, it is difficult to self-evaluate and straighten out personal fronts because doing so would divert one’s attention from the social situation itself. Any setting in which monotony overrules serves as a reason for individuals to strictly carry out close scrutiny of self and major adjustments of personal fronts, which I personally find to be an exhausting and unnecessary undertaking. Societal and cultural aspects of South Korea, thus, should actively, far more consciously strive to support diversity and encourage inclusion – urge its people to lose their “face” and stop worrying so much about fitting in or acting with this nonsensical “common sense” created by the community. Personally speaking, South Korea’s push towards uniformity is becoming really unnerving.