A post titled “The Level for Eating Alone” on Dcinside, a popular online community for young people, recently attracted a lot of attention for its contents. The subject involved levels of dining, whereby the lowest was stated to be eating instant noodles alone at a convenience store whereas the highest was drinking alone at a bar. As the post explains, eating alone at restaurant is an awkward situation for most Koreans and Hanyangians are no exception. In fact, according to a recent survey conducted by The Hanyang Journal(The HJ), 61.1 percent out of 400 Korean Hanyangians answered that they are unwilling to eating alone at public restaurants. A Hanyangian who wanted to remain anonymous shared her story about eating alone. “One time, I was so busy that I could not have lunch with my friends so I went alone to the university cafeteria. However, I could not muster the courage to eat alone so I just ate a loaf of bread in the ladies room.”
The most compelling reason why Koreans are likely to be afraid of eating alone in public restaurants is that they are concerned about watchful eyes. According to The HJ survey, more than half of the respondents who indicated they minded eating alone said that they were self-conscious about others perceiving them as being an unsociable person. Min Da-eun, a Sophomore in the Department of Education at Hanyang University(HYU) said, “When I eat by myself while others are in groups, I’m concerned that they might view me as being an outcast and/or an unsociable person. However, if other people are eating by themselves, I feel better.”
While Koreans are uncomfortable about eating alone, Westerners do not mind dining by themselves. Hotan Mazrouee, an American Hanyangian in the Division of International Studies at HYU, said, “It is very common for Americans to eat by themselves. I was pretty confused when I first came to Korea because it seemed like my Korean friends felt bad for me whenever I told them I ate by myself.”
Different Perspectives of Dining
The different perspectives towards eating alone between Koreans and Westerners can be explained in part by the different social viewpoints, namely the outsider perspectives of Koreans and the insider perspectives of Westerners. Koreans can be argued to have the outsider view which looks at an individual from the position of others as though they are looking in a mirror. On the other hand, Westerners identify themselves from the insider perspective. In other words, while Koreans tend to imagine putting themselves in another person’s place and vicariously experiencing another person’s situation, Westerners tend to see the world from their own point of view in the way they feel most comfortable and desirable.
Examples of such different viewpoints between Koreans and Westerners can be seen in the results of a simple experiment conducted in Docu Prime, a TV documentary program on EBS, titled “East and West” in 2008. In the program, pictures are shown of a monkey, a panda, and a banana. People were asked to categorize them into two different groups. Generally, while most Asians including Koreans linked the monkey with the banana, Westerners linked the monkey with the panda. Lee Hee-soo, a Professor in the Department of Cultural Anthropology at HYU, explained, “When one sees something from the outsider perspective, it means he or she focuses on relational aspects, such as ‘How others would think?’ or ‘How the behavior affects others?’. On the contrary, from the insider perspective, people tend to see objects by focusing on independent entities rather than relationships.”
In this respect, different views on eating alone between Koreans and Westerners can be better understood with the outsider/insider perspective. That is, when someone eats alone in a restaurant while others eat in groups, Koreans focus on situations in relation to others, whereas Westerners place more weight on themselves, the ones who are eating.
The Korean Culture of Solicitude and the Western Culture of Choice
Such different viewpoints between Koreans and Westerners affect how people from each culture think of and treat others. This can be translated as the solicitude culture of Korea and choice culture of the West. According to The HJ survey, about 80 percent of Korean Hanyangians claimed they prefer others to make choices while being considerate of them, over having the authority to make a choice. On the other hand, most Westerners are said to prefer having the right to make their own choices. The different preferences in having choices between these two groups have resulted in some Westerners feeling uncomfortable at Koreans’ solicitousness. Rick Purt, a Dutch graduate student at HYU, expressed his view saying, “In my country, having choices for oneself is more desirable and common than others first considering others. I personally prefer to have more options. When I first came to Korea, I did not know that most Koreans give priority to others’ feelings. It affected to my first impression of Koreans giving me a little bit of pressure. Sometimes Koreans’ solicitude is little bit too much and gives an uncomfortable feeling to foreigners including me.”
Moreover, due to differences in culture, Westerners often misunderstand Koreans, thinking that Koreans are too concerned about others to be able to make choices for themselves. Purt said, “In the Netherlands, the oldest in a group may choose the menu or all people can cooperate in choosing the meal at a restaurant. Yet, in Korea, I have noticed that many people yield to others asking them to choose. I think it is very hard for them to really make a choice because they consider what other people might want to eat at that moment. The Dutch are more direct.”
Still, being considerate of others culturally can have positive aspects. Yeo Na-yoon, a Junior in the Department of Policy Science at HYU, said, “Being considerate of others is part of Koreans’ nature and demonstrates the warm-heartedness of Koreans who understand each other without having to say anything. Moreover, it can be viewed as positive in terms of creating a synergy effect, focusing on the communication among people when they work together.”
Ultimately, it appears the difference between Korean solicitude culture and the Western independent culture is due mostly in part to the different ways these groups of people look at themselves and the world. By understanding this, one can acknowledge that it is no use judging others by ones’ own standards.