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Imagine you work in a United States office where some employees are from the USA and others from Korea. What is an acceptable way for an American employee to apologize to a Korean employee when the American believes they have caused the Korean to lose face by criticizing them in front of coworkers in a group meeting?

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    Why do you think them being Korean should affect how you treat them? Would you know how to apologise to them had they also been American? – Bernhard Barker Oct 21 '18 at 9:23
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    Did you have a choice? Was there a way to not criticize them in public? – nvoigt Oct 21 '18 at 9:25
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    Totally irrelevant whether he had a choice. This is water under the bridge - the damage is done. Discussing the past is... not common sense, in cases like this. – TomTom Oct 21 '18 at 13:28
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    @Dukeling My question is about cross-cultural understanding. Hurting someone/apologizing to someone works differently in different cultures, so that one person here is from the USA and another from Korea is important to understanding the different rules in play of offending/apologizing. – birch Oct 21 '18 at 14:03
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    Well, for starters if you'd do exactly the same next time because there was no real choice, then personally, I would find any apology pointless and dishonest and it might be better to find a way to deal with it. If you had a choice, recognizing that and suggesting a way to handle it next time might be appropriate. – nvoigt Oct 21 '18 at 14:30
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I'm from Japan whose culture is quite similar to Korea's.

If it was in a US office, I'd honestly recommend treating them just as you would treat an American colleague. It's a nice thought to be culturally sensitive, but most immigrants are perfectly capable of understanding other cultures and adapting after living and working there long enough. If somebody interacts with me in a different way because I'm from Japan, I'll probably be annoyed even if it's well-intentioned.

If the colleague is very new to the US, or are just visiting it might be a different story, but even then you might risk coming across as patronizing. After all, it's not like we east Asians come from a different dimension - most likely immigrants working in a highly-skilled profession will have a decent understanding of the culture they are working in.

One followup question: do I need to make other coworkers aware of the apology? A private conversation does not communicate to the coworkers that were in the original meeting that an apology happened. Is that important for the apology to be appropriate?

Honestly, I wouldn't try. Unless you have a very good understanding of Korean culture, if you do things you normally wouldn't do, chances are you will do it wrong. Better to be sincere in your own way, or perhaps be a bit nicer than normal, but I wouldn't recommend trying to use culture-specific communication tools you aren't familiar with.

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  • Thanks for this perspective. It's not clear why you believe my co-workers can understand another culture and adapt to it but I cannot. The experience so far is that my co-workers will not offer or accept criticism in group settings, suggesting they are not as interested in adapting as you might assume. And those who do offer criticism in group settings later struggle to work alongside those they criticized. So these differences are real on both sides and are causing our department to underperform. That is the main problem I'm trying to resolve. – birch Oct 22 '18 at 13:37
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    Fair enough. I'd be wary of interpreting this as a cultural difference though. People are individuals with their own point of view and feelings. Imagine somebody asked, "How should I apologize to a female?". While there might be some valid hints, in the end, people are all different, and what is best highly depends on the individual. In fairness, being criticized in a group setting is always hard (that's why you generally praise in public and criticize in private). Surely you had coworkers who don't react well to criticism in the past, no? Could you not apply the same means this time? @birch – Enno Shioji Oct 22 '18 at 14:01
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    > not clear why you believe my co-workers can understand another culture and adapt to it but I cannot <- I'm sure you can, if you were to work and live in Korea for a while. Solely based on an answer here, probably not. The main issue is, by trying to accommodate Korean culture in US, you risk a) implying the Koreans are unable to adapt, and b) make mistakes while trying due to incomplete understanding of the culture. @birch – Enno Shioji Oct 22 '18 at 18:10
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I am American but has spent time working in a East Asian country and can understand your view. There is indeed are some differences in how interactions between coworkers work such in your circumstance. Before answering your question, I want to provide some useful background.

Articles on Korean business culture such this one states that communication in Korea is more indirect and anything that may place a coworker in a bad light, especially in public, is usually perceived as bad taste / rude. In Korea, the emphasis on harmony, unity, and collaboration means that one usually tries to speak with one voice and avoid opinions / comments that take a different view. Therefore you colleague may have perceived your public criticism as making him "lose face" or that he had to defend himself, which he may not be expecting or particularly good at, per the cultural environment he is familiar with.

Going forward, if you need to critique or otherwise need to give negative feedback to this colleague, I suggest a private conversation. This will give him an opportunity to correct himself or provide his feedback to you before any public exposure in front of other teams and / or management.

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  • Thanks. One followup question: do I need to make other coworkers aware of the apology? A private conversation does not communicate to the coworkers that were in the original meeting that an apology happened. Is that important for the apology to be appropriate? – birch Oct 21 '18 at 18:21
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None? When in Rome, do as the romans do. When in America, understand you will be judged by the american way of life, NOT the korean way. Simple like that. If he can not stand loosing face (standard in western societies lacking the understanding of face), stay in asia.

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    I think you might misunderstand my question because it seems you think I am asking from the perspective of the Korean wanting the American to apologize. But I am asking from the perspective of the American who feels they hurt a Korean coworker and wants to repair the relationship with them. – birch Oct 21 '18 at 14:01
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    No misunderstanding. I expect a korean coming to my country to follow the rules of MY country. Same way I would expect to follow as much as I can korean roles should I go to korea. As such, YOU have NOTHING to do. – TomTom Oct 21 '18 at 14:31
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    I think the situation was not quite like that. OP did something that wouldn't have been unacceptable (although rude) to the average US co-worker, but that a Korean co-worker will find unacceptable due to different culture. And OP feels bad about it and wants to apologise. How to do that is a totally legitimate question. Most people try not to hurt their co-workers feelings more than intended. – gnasher729 Oct 21 '18 at 16:43
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    @TomTom There is no single set of rules in the USA. General patterns, yes, but all you have to do is go to a party in the Midwest (starts exactly on time) and then to one in California (starts 45min - 1 hour after start time) to realize there's no single set of USA rules. So it doesn't make sense to expect people to follow the rules of a country when those rules aren't even consistent across that country. – birch Oct 21 '18 at 18:18

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