Q: How personal is too personal in Korea?
Before moving here, a couple of my friends warned me that Koreans had a tendency to ask very personal questions. I accepted it as a culturally common thing, but what I didn’t realize was how soon some of these questions were asked and how personal they could get. (Maybe I’m more sensitive because I grew up in a very individualistic environment where people don’t pry a lot into other people’s business(?)). Anyway, I thought it would be a great idea to list some questions that I’ve received that I considered pretty personal and offer some ideas on how to handle the situation should it ever occur to someone else. I should mention, not every Korean ask questions like this, but you may come across some that do.
Question #1 – Do you have a boyfriend?
This question in and of itself isn’t really a personal one, but when I hop in a taxi or go to a random place where I barely know someone, to have this question be one of the top 3 questions that I receive after “What’s your name?” and “How old are you?”, when I meet someone for the first time, is a bit overwhelming. I’ve gotten kind of used to it now, but the follow-up explanation needed after my initial response sometimes gets to me.
Question #2 – How old are you?
This isn’t really private I guess, and I’ve definitely gotten more used to it after living here, but when I first moved here it was kind of weird to me. My gut response was always, “Why do you care?” (Okay, I never said that to their faces, but I definitely thought it.) Now, I understand. The only reason why it’s important in this culture to ask for someone’s age right off the back is to know how you can address that person respectfully. So now I don’t mind the question, but always being reminded of your age comes with various forms pressure if you live in a comparative society like Korea. (It doesn’t help that you’re always older here than in America 🙄).
Question #3 – How much money do you make?
I feel like in America this question is kind of rude. Is this a commonly asked question from strangers on the street? No. But it is asked enough that you may meet a stranger who will ask you about it. For example, I met up with someone for a language exchange meetup for the first time and in our first meeting, this person asked me how much money I made. We were talking about language so I found it extremely random. It also happened to me when I was riding the bus as well. I don’t know why strangers would be remotely curious as to what’s in my wallet, but it is what it is. With the bus driver, I deflected from answering this question by pretending that I didn’t know how to express earnings well in Korean (which is actually true so I guess I wasn’t lying) and with the second guy, I used Corona as an excuse to say I didn’t have a stable income. 🙈 But, should this ever happen to someone else (or if it happens to me again), my advice would be to just say you aren’t comfortable with answering a question like that. Usually, the younger generation won’t ask questions like this but, sometimes, they do (like my language exchange buddy).
It has taken me a couple of months, but I’m starting to realize that it’s okay to tell Koreans that as a foreigner you aren’t okay with being asked certain questions by people you don’t know well. You don’t have to answer everything. I actually haven’t tried this method personally, but I hear it’s okay. For example, I had an uncomfortable situation happen to me the other day at the gym (a story that I may share another time when the situation is resolved) that involves certain personal questions. I didn’t know how to respond to him and I begin to feel uncomfortable around that person and unsafe. After talking with some of my friends, I realized that these questions actually weren’t common in my situation and I needed to express my uncomfortableness with them in order for the man to stop. So, I’m going to try it and see what happens.
There are more questions that people can ask you, but those were the top three probably more commonly asked questions that you may encounter frequently. It’s not that invasive depending on the situation and person. For the most part, Koreans are really good at waiting till you guys are at least semi-close to each other before asking certain questions but you can run into some that aren’t.
Well, that’s all for today.
Until next time,
See ya around, friend~~