One challenge I’ve faced as a Korean-American female in the corporate world

Let me preface this by stating that the literature below represents my own principles and thoughts and is based on my personal experience. I am not speaking for anyone else but myself.

I believe there’s not enough conversation around this topic. A quick Google search for “challenges Korean Americans face in corporate” yields disappointing results. I’m not going to bother trying for multiple queries to see if something exists — if I have to dig that deep for it, that in itself speaks volumes.

For context, I’m a second generation Korean American in her 20’s, born and raised in arguably one of the most diverse cities in the world. All my education has been in the US. I have worked for over half a decade now in the best marketing/advertising firms with multiple career promotions.

Communication is complicated. Erin Meyer, the author of “The Culture Map,” provides a framework that nicely describes the spectrum of communication by country. Low context is represented by a lot of English speaking countries like US, Canada, Australia and UK, while high context communicators include a lot of Asian countries such as Japan, Korea and Indonesia.

Erin Meyer: The Culture Map

I can’t agree more with this research. I recall when I was started working during my first year after graduation, the feedback I received primarily had to due with the way I communicated — that I needed to be more explicit about agreement or the plan to take a specific action. I was accustomed to a more high context way of communicating in which a simple “yes” as an answer was appropriate. I also recall not wanting to be a “burden” to my managers, so I would ask for things in an indirect way to subtly address things. Looking back, this was not an effective way to communicate in the environment that I was in.

After more than five years of professional experience I feel much more comfortable with speaking up for exactly what I want in a very direct way, especially when it comes to communicating with clients. That doesn’t mean that I still don’t find it challenging at times, especially when it comes to speaking up in larger meetings. I’ve gotten to a point where sometimes it feels like I have to be extra simple and explicit just to overcompensate for perception — knowing that based on my physical looks, people may assume that I am soft spoken or timid.

My friend (who is Jewish) once told me that growing up her family always debated a variety of issues and ideas at the dinner table. I could see how that would be incredibly helpful in the development of critical thinking skills as one grows older. It would also be great practice for speaking on your point of view in general. We never did this in my family because it would be considered disrespectful to debate (which would be considering arguing) with parents at all. I have never heard of any Korean families who engaged in this behavior growing up.

Everyone faces challenges. Understanding each other’s challenges encourages empathy and gives people an opportunity to help one another. That’s what I’d like to see in the world I live in.