Champions of Passive Aggression

Because of some lingering, weirdo aspects of Confucianism, directness is not well-valued in the Korean workplace. Generally, directness labels you as a rebel, a kind of leather-covered, slick-haired troublemaker drag racing and challenging the system. In Korea, the boss is held supreme, and his or her (but usually his) many and various capricious whims are to be carried out by virtue of the fact that they issued from the mouth of someone old. Trying to get your way when you are younger or subordinate puts you at odds against that system. But your way is really, really good, and how do you go about getting it?

For people coming from a different culture, this can be incredibly frustrating. Not being able to speak your mind, not being able to express your opinions and try to get things done, without being seen as an obnoxious boor is troubling. It is difficult and aggravating to adjust to, as it is for anyone trying to adjust to the bureaucratic nuances in an entirely new place. You can see others achieving their aims, but the methods are too labyrinthine, too Other, and it all occurs by dark of night and in another language. You imagine navigating the social mores of a beehive would be less complicated.

In hardline Confucianism, the subordinate should simply keen to the directions of the elder. Of course, the subordinate still wants things, and so the only path to glory for them is the round-about. How you get your way is to show your long-sufferingness. You must bare your underbelly: you must show you are doing your very, very best to carry-out the sometimes intelligent, sometimes useless commands of your superiors, and you must show how this effort is taking its toll. You must throw yourself upon the mercy of the hierarchy, and show how flustered and utterly overwhelmed you are, and then things will begin to flutter up the chain of command, outside of your hands. The ignorant boob at the bottom of the ladder, if things are running as they should, needs to be educated. They need to be helped.


Sort of without realizing it, I used the proper methods and channels to solve an issue. The Korean way. The passive aggressive way.

The end of the semester was nigh, and I was teaching what I thought would be my last grade six classes for the whole year. The children were bitter, aggressive husks, barely capable of even maintaining respiratory function what with hating everything so much. The first withering spells of puberty were upon them, and they were already far, far too cool for elementary school, and certainly for me. If this was to be my last class with them, I was perfectly all right. I could use the extra time elsewhere to plan my camps, and minister to the children who didn’t regularly act as though they wanted to spit in my face.

And then: trouble. The schedule for the following week (three days following Christmas, where nothing could be gained), and graduation week, five days of schooling wedged between two month-long vacations, emerged. Both were dry, desolate times, arid wastelands of pedagogy, where the grade sixes are barely capable of even holding to the mores and regulations of proper society. It is near impossible to manage to get them not to defecate on the floor and kill one another for meat, never mind sit down and participate in a class. And I was scheduled to teach them. Twice.

And the rest of the staff in my office were to not teach anyone at all. Nor teach any camps.

I roiled at the injustice: my coworkers would be spending the next three weeks on vacation, while I would be spending them on additional classes. With the grade sixes. As a group, we should have been planning how to corral them all into a room and let them battle royale their remaining time in elementary to thin the herd before middle school. Also, I had planned to make use of the dead times in the semester to prep my materials. Now I would endure the grade sixes for even longer? That I was to be teaching them first thing on a Monday seemed just salt in the wound.

How could I possibly shirk these classes? I love teaching, let’s make this clear, but I was not being told to teach, I was being told to babysit. To keep the zoo animals from setting fire to the premises during the poorly scheduled nonsense days. The actual teaching would come during the break, during my doubled-up camps I needed to prep.

I couldn’t simply whine about it and ask what was the deal, which was my first impulse. No, this would be brash and childish and it would openly display my stompy-foot, hissy petulance. I needed a better route.

I wandered into the teacher’s office adjacent to my English classroom, sat down at a table, and began to sigh audibly. It was dramatic, the kind of sighing you get in amateur drama societies, or from teens at the dinner table. I fixed up my features to show my forlornness. No one would look upon me and see a man, they would see a boy, weighed down by the very weight of the world. I gazed down at my feet, and began scuffing my toe into the flooring.

“Michael, what’s wrong?” my coworkers eventually inquired. “The schedule,” I replied, sadly, “have you seen it?” They nodded, they had. They knew what this is about.

I began to spin my tale of woe: this is a very stressful time for me. I must plan six different camps (my coworkers had already found this excessive, and expressed their sympathy). It is Christmas, a very important time for foreigners, and I am so far from my loved ones. Soon I will go to other countries, I need to plan! And why, [x]coteacher has been absent for two weeks and I have been all alone with the grade sixes! What a difficult time I will soon face.

I nodded to myself, and then left the room. Nothing more needed to be said. It was melodramatic and beyond overzealous, but my coworkers knew the dance far better than even I. Whispered conversations soon took place, phone calls exchanged, horses traded. Night winds blew. Cloaks and daggers swished.

“Michael, in February, you will not teach grade sixes. The schedule is changed!”

Strategy: successful. In exchange, in supplication, I offered daily snacks proffered to me by my camp students for my coworkers. They took their share of chocopies, and gave me their knowing nods. The system works, if you know the path.

21 thoughts on “Champions of Passive Aggression

  1. Tangentially related, only, because we’ve already talked about this, but yesterday my boyfriend was going over my Korean homework (a short essay) and he actually told me that my writing in Korean is too direct. For example, I had written something to the effect of, “Korea has become more crowded in recent years, so apartment buildings have begun to replace individual houses.” He said he understood what I was saying, and it wasn’t wrong, but that it was too “American” — that I should have taken more time to get to the point, instead of just stating “A happened because of B.” My mind was blown in a not-so-good way and I think it’s going to take a very long time to fully catch up in this country.

    • Yeah, of all things, I think getting used to the additional aspects of language — the non-science, the parts that are not book-learnable, is the weirdest. Picking up the culture of how to use the language like a native language user is weird.

      I’ve heard similar things, though. Like, I’m not writing a freshman university essay. I don’t have a page limit I need to breach. This is my second language, I’ve no time to waffle!

  2. What you said is quite true of most Asian cultures and that includes mine(i.e. Indian). Though in India, the extent, depends on which region of the country you reside in.

    And trust me, most of us who are born here, brought up here and still living here find it difficult to get around the system and struggle to get things done in the system many a times. What you have achieved is a marvelous feat I must say.

    Passive-aggression is an art. And you seem to have got a head start! Keep going 🙂

  3. I can see both ways – but one of the good things about being a foreigner in China is that no one really expects you to behave that way – so I can do either – act Chinese and get appreciated for it, or act Western and they just accept that I am not Chinese.

    I agree with one of the other comments. Language is one thing, being able to communicate. The next step is really figuring out the cultural baggage behind.

    • I can get away with that to a certain degree in Korea, too — having a foreigner card allows me to opt out of a lot of Korea-style obligations I don’t want to engage in, but the best way to get anything done efficiently is still to pull some Korean-style workplace trickery.

  4. I wonder if this has ever failed to work for anyone …… because to me before using the passive aggressive wayyou must have maintained a certain camaraderie in the workplace….

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