Thursday, 26 September 2013

Hello, is it me you're looking for?

I have a friend, Katetastic, who like me is a little older than the main TEFL teacher demographic and, perhaps, this is why when we are together we talk the way we do. I think if anyone had been able to earwig on a recent conversation they'd have been a little shocked by the subject. Our conversation was about pleasures in life and how Westerners, overall, appear to be better at enjoying pleasure than Koreans.

Due to Korea's fast paced lifestyle and work, work, work attitude (as a student or an employee), I think that Koreans have lost some of their ability to enjoy life. Everywhere you go people have their noses in their smartphones, even in coffee shops with friends (guilty as charged). They never turn off or ignore their phones. As a teacher, I know how much time my students spend each day in school with many students attend school from 8.30 in the morning to the same time at night! Very little time is given to them to play. The constant focus on working or studying deprives these younger generations of the value of social interactions and pleasurable activities, whether you do them alone or in groups. Instead to compensate for their hard work, parents present their children with the latest state of the art smartphone as these can help them in their studies and provide some relief to the intensity of the day. I have students who are in 1st Grade (FIRST GRADE) with Smartphones! My first smart phone was at the grand old age of 29. I didn't own a mobile phone until I was in my 2nd year of college and I was 21 at that stage! Granted this was eons ago but it doesn't take away the impact that a mobile phone has on your interpersonal communication skills and behaviour.

As a Speech Communication major this fascinates, and to be honest, kind of appalls me. With all that mobile phones can do, thanks to their many wonderful apps, it sometimes seems as if they've changed communication forever more.
Graduating as a Speech Comm. Major
We seem to interact more with our mobiles than we do our fellow humans. However, if we look at the Shannon-Weaver Model of Communication, we can see that communication  really hasn't really changed. Instead of a human receiver we have an electronic one. These devices can even provide us with feedback!  There are benefits to this, of course: responses to our requests for information are fed back to us is immediately.  We can get a plethora of information on any subject we desire. Airline, concert and train tickets can be booked ahead of time. Without needing a computer, never mind a printout, we can board trains, enter cinemas and even go to restaurants. Music can be listened to and your favourite movies or tv shows are all easily accessible.

 Shannon -Weaver Model - image courtesy of
Even with all the benefits, I would argue that allowing a device to become the sole receiver of a message, we will cause problems in our interpersonal relationships. I would argue that the device has become the noise rather than the channel that feeds the message. As a technology savvy country, Korea encourages it's consumers to buy the latest gadgets and, as everyone uses their mobile phones all the time, most Koreans own the latest iPhone or Samsung Galaxy. Thanks to cheap internet rates and the multitude of PC Bangs (internet cafes), the majority of the country spends an awful lot of time on the internet or playing online games. With having a phone that gives notifications everytime a message is received, whether it is a text or a notification from a social website such as Facebook, you are looking at constant interruptions to your social interactions. Even if the message isn't checked immediately, it has caused an interruption. Many apps, such as Kakao, allow a preview of the message to appear on your locked screen, even when the phone is on silent.  This means that even without sound, the flash of the incoming message can distract from conversations as, invariably, you glance down to see who it's from. This leads to you losing focus on the person you are interacting with and your conversation.

With the increasing reliance on devices, Koreans are getting more and more used to instant gratification as pretty much everything that they want is on their phone and any information that they need is instantly sent back to them. I believe that this has caused an expectation of instant gratification in their daily lives - waiting on a message from a friend, public transport, waiting to be served in a the local shop etc. Not only can it cause frustration in how they interact when forced to have delays but it can also detrimentally affect how they interact as there seems to be an innate need to respond to your friends and colleagues instantly without taking time to think of your response. For example, I was asked in September whether or not I plan on staying another year in Korea - 9 full months before my contract ends. I was expected to give an answer right away for something I haven't made a decision on or thought very much about. Thankfully, my co-teacher also thought that I should wait a few months longer to make a decision.

Another way that the push to constantly use your phone is encouraged, is the culture of using public transport in Korea. While people do talk on the subway/bus and train, it is generally in very hushed tones. Those that talk in normal decibels are frequently hushed (yours truly included).  I've sat beside Koreans having full blown conversations on their phone and I haven't been able to hear a word that they said. This means that even friends or family members easily spend the entire ride in utter silence. Instead, they have their noses in their phones or pass the time by sleeping rather than talking.

On my Samsung Galaxy, I not only have the phone's camera but a silent camera, Instagram, Snapchat and several collage makers. I can instantly snap photos at any time that I want. Each app caters to a specific need - the silent camera is great for those sneaky pictures, Snapchat for those funny messages between friends and Instagram for stunning sunsets. Even more important in Korea, is the mandatory selfie. While I have on many occasions have been guilty of attempting and perfecting the selfie, I recognise that it has actually affected my interpersonal relationships. Selfies encourage us to go it alone and, as Elsie Hu said in this NPR article, "The cultural shift is complete. We're all just alone with our smartphones, even when we are surrounded by other humans." Rather than ask someone to take a photo of me standing beside a monument, I will take a picture of myself with only the slightest glimpse of the monument in the background. So instead of having a moment to remember pleasurably, I have a picture of me with the hint of something in the background. When I show those photos to someone else will I be able to remember what that something was and what my feeling were on seeing it?
Recent Selfies
While many things on a smartphone contribute to our entertainment, I don't believe that they necessarily contribute to pleasure in life. The constant interruptions, the intense focus on the phone and the perceived inability to turn it off, has, I believe, negatively impacted Korean's growth in social interactions and pleasure. Korea has grown so much in the last 50 years and as a result they have had to juxtapose traditional values and ways of life against the intense growth in technology, wealth, educational demands and the pressure that is associated with these.

So you might think I'm mad to believe that Korea is somewhat negatively impacted by the strides it has made in becoming a first world country.  You might think I'm mad to believe that the negative impact is directly related to a loss of pleasure and relaxation as well as basic interpersonal skills. You might think I'm mad to frown upon the instant gratification of smart-phones and to even consider them the noise in the Shannon and Weaver model. However, I urge you to think how often you use your mobile phone and what impact it has on your relationships. While I believe that the West is better at having pleasure in our lives, we are increasingly allowing technology to take over. Do I think that smartphones only negatively impact Korea? Definitely not, but until I came to Korea and experienced the abundance of dependence on a device, I never thought of the negative connotations of having a smartphone. One only needs to look at the episode of the Big Bang Theory where Raj falls in love with the Siri app on his iPhone to see how easy it is for anyone, not just Koreans, to become obsessed with their smartphone and to allow it dictate our life.

There is so much to talk about in relation to this subject alone but as this is starting to become an essay and not a blog post I will stop here! Before I stop a huge shout out to my friend, Panama, for all his help and tips for this post, and to my sister, KT, for all her help in reviewing and rewriting this post. Remaining mistakes are all my own!

PS - this post is inspired by a conversation with Katetastic and my dwelling on my one of my favourite college courses - Communication Theory. Further, the title of this post was inspired by Lionel Ritchies' "Hello".
For more information on the Shannon and Weaver Communication Model, please click here. Em Griffin actually wrote the book that I used in college for Communication Theory. He's a legend and (lucky me) he autographed my copy of this book! The image of the model above was taken from

PPS - this post places Korea in a negative light. I want to point out that I know several Koreans who defy the above observations. However, this does not detract from the truth of these general observations on Korea's modern culture and communication style.

PPPS - there is a new watch being unveiled by Samsung and I think that this is, possibly, just another nail in the interpersonal communication coffin of South Korea!

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