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I am currently a United States expatriate living and working in South Korea at a South Korean company. I am a white male and I speak Korean. I joined this company ~6 months ago, and this is my first job out of college. Some details will be intentionally obfuscated as to try and protect the anonymity of me and my colleagues. The purpose of this question is to determine what my next move should be in handling this type of behaviour. As an expatriate whose Visa is connected with this company, I am also looking for a solution that would not put me in a dangerous situation that would force me to move companies suddenly or leave the country.

Background

I am a junior, and way above me in the hierarchy is a Korean male with a position of director in the business administration sector (there are only ~50 employees overall, so it is common for all levels of employees to be in contact with each other to some extent, and even so this director seems to specifically enjoy being around me).

This director will often come to me and try to make small talk. Besides the fact that it is always unwanted smalltalk, the director consistently brings up (in my opinion) subjects, like politics, religion, etc., that are not only in general touchy subjects but also are often inappropriate for the workplace. Not only this, but he often expresses very strong, inflammatory, and sometimes discriminatory opinions. To roughly quote (translated from Korean) him from just yesterday:

Being a manager is so hard.. each person is so different and you have to deal with everybody's opinions, so damn annoying... I wish I could make everybody think just one thing.. that's why I think democracy is useless, because now we have to deal with everybody's opinions. If it were up to me I would be a tyrant and so everybody could have only one thought, mine! ...

He then takes the conversation to America and it's status as a democratic nation and the current and previous president (Joe Biden and Donald Trump, respectively):

I like Biden because I am also a Catholic, but man isn't he just sitting around with his thumb up his a** all day? Trump sir was a much better president right? At least he did something you know, try to put up the Mexican wall, right?? ...

This, already, is way out of the scope of a normal workplace chat in my opinion. I personally try to hold any political opinions like that inside (though I already have very little interest in politics so it's very easy to not speak about it), but especially in a workplace I believe it is way too inappropriate to speak like this.

After this conversation, I had to go into his shared office to ask where the other director in the office was. He took this as an opportunity to have another inflammatory chit-chat. Part of the conversation went like this (again, my rough translation from his Korean):

I like cold weather.. I travelled all around Europe in one of my previous jobs.. Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Russia, ... (generally Eastern European countries), and the girls were so beautiful! Right? They are so beautiful and nice.. but all Korean girls are just 'meh', and they are just so annoying and have terrible attitudes, right?!

Conclusion

This is not the first conversation like this. He often brings up inflammatory content and expects the people listening (i.e. me) to agree with him. I would like to know what steps I could take in order to stop this behavior. I personally believe he needs to do a lot of work on himself, but obviously this is not something I can enforce or even suggest without putting some sort of a target on myself I think. So far, if I simply don't give him an "in" (i.e. when he comes to me, do not answer his initial greeting, or answer very quickly and then ignore him and continue working) then he will often just lose interest quickly and move away, but is this the only option I have to stop him from talking to me like this? I do not know if this is big enough (or if it is safe enough) to bring this up to HR.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Lilienthal
    Dec 30, 2021 at 20:29

5 Answers 5

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So far, if I simply don't give him an "in"

That's the ticket. Keep ignoring him as much as possible. Don't react, don't mumble a reply, just stare blankly into nowhere and be as boring as possible.

so this director seems to specifically enjoy being around me

Try to make yourself as unenjoyable as possible. Find out what's special about you and make it inaccessible to him.

It sounds like the guy wants an reaction out of you. The less you react, the more likely it is that he'll get bored and move on. Be actively boring and unengaging as soon he mentions anything non-work related. While his comments are obnoxious and dumb, they don't seem to be in a class (at least in my opinion) where I would feel compelled to speak up (and live with the consequences). Do this consistently and see what happens.

I'm afraid, you may have to sit this one out. I'm not super familiar with South Korea specifically, but in general East Asian work culture is much more hierarchical than in the US. Seniority and rank count for a lot and you have to tread very carefully if you want to swim upstream.

It's unlikely that HR would engage on something that comes from a senior employee that's not outright illegal or a major risk to the company.

You can also observe how your peers or co-workers react to the same thing. If there is someone you trust (a lot), then you can have a private conversation and ask for advice.

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    In such a hierarchical environment, wouldn't "make yourself as unenjoyable as possible" be antithetical to having a good career?
    – Peter M
    Jan 4, 2022 at 18:16
  • You can still be enjoyable to the other managers. If they are all behaving badly, than there is probably no good career to be had there, no matter what you do.
    – Hilmar
    Jan 5, 2022 at 15:55
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I'm not South Korean, but I spent a couple of months there, continuously, on a job assignment, working and drinking alongside a bunch of local folks in various positions in the hierarchy.

Firstly, topics you find "inappropriate" are often par for the course; the fact that this director raises them in conversations with you is likely because he likes you, otherwise he'd be much more formal and reserved.

I'm pretty sure the Korean HR department won't find anything actionable or even unusual in his behaviour, so complaning to them is probably a bad move.

Secondly, the boss/subordinate dynamics in S.Korea are very different from what you are accustomed to in the US. Even if he is not your (direct or indirect) superior in the organisation, he's still your senior and you are expected to show respect. Trying to "not answer his initial greeting, or answer very quickly and then ignore him and continue working" will be seen as rude. Even trying to strongly argue with him might backfire.

If you find a topic he wants to discuss with you uncomfortable, be polite and try to change the topic to something of more interest to you.

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Since I am completely ignorant of Korean culture, I'm going to recommend a simple action.

Ask your colleagues what to do.

They will know about local culture, and about the boss. This may be something he does to all new people. He may stop. But the chances are your colleagues have seen this before and know how to handle it. Or maybe it's utterly outrageous by Korean standards and will get your boss fired.

When you ask start from a position of ignorance. Something like:

Can I ask about Korean culture? I'm just an ignorant American, and where I'm from the boss would be reprimanded for saying things like that. Is it considered normal here?

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You want your boss (who seems to be acting very friendly to you) to be different. You can't change him, and despite his actions making you cringe, they are based on his like for you.

So, you must start taking more of an active role in the conversation. Don't join him in the topics that annoy, but redirect them to topics that most people can get behind. Food is an excellent topic, as is traffic (crazy drivers), high prices, sports (if you like them), the weather, hobbies, and any non-inflammatory activities you enjoy.

If you share some of yourself with him, it's a small amount of time where he's not going to be able to irritate you. After a while, he'll might reciprocate by opening with chit-chat on topics that you talk about too.

Acting overly boring or non-responsive is likely to give the wrong impression. If your boss gets the idea you're giving him a cold shoulder, his friendliness might backfire into displeasure. However, acting friendly on a topic that he finds boring won't have the same effect.

How to change topics? Listen to him, say something non-committal like "That's interesting." The follow it up with "Hey, I know I've been here for a little while, but I was wondering..." and ask him something. He gets to show off in ways you directed, and you get to hear for a few minutes something that's likely innocuous.

Being a manager is so hard.. each person is so different and you have to deal with everybody's opinions, so damn annoying... I wish I could make everybody think just one thing.. that's why I think democracy is useless, because now we have to deal with everybody's opinions. If it were up to me I would be a tyrant and so everybody could have only one thought, mine!

Yeah, but if anything went wrong, you'd have to argue with yourself! Hahahaha. Hey, I just tried the food at xxxx, > and I thought it was pretty good / pretty bad. Have you tried it?

I like Biden because I am also a Catholic, but man isn't he just sitting around with his thumb up his a** all day? Trump sir was a much better president right? At least he did something you know, try to put up the Mexican wall, right?? ...

Well, you can see how that turned out. About as good as my Orchid. I really like the flowers, but I'm getting to be an expert in killing them. Maybe I should just stick to the public gardens. Do you have a favorite?

I like cold weather.. I travelled all around Europe in one of my previous jobs.. Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Russia, ... (generally Eastern European countries), and the girls were so beautiful! Right? They are so beautiful and nice.. but all Korean girls are just 'meh', and they are just so annoying and have terrible attitudes, right?!

Hahaha. Everything exotic seems better, till you find out what you have later! Speaking of exotic, did you hear about that US Barbecue place? I think it's funny how people are excited about the kind of food we'd cook in our back yards when I was a kid. Have you been there yet?

Notice the goals: shut him down, but not too hard; and, redirect to a topic where he can still participate but in ways that are hard to be inappropriate.

That way you can eventually cover the really controversial topics, like if Gordon Ramsey would be half as popular if he didn't cuss.

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This kind of behavior can be found in parts of Texas and perhaps elsewhere in this country.

As such, the challenge is to learn social skills in order to let someone else express outrageous comments without accepting them or taking offence. In any situation, we have to ask which battles we are willing to fight and which do we let go of. Most invitations to battle are worth declining. We have the option to work together with others to build something else or fracture a situation by focusing on our differences.

Here is an ACM article on social skills: https://cacm.acm.org/magazines/2021/12/256926-what-every-engineer-and-computer-scientist-should-know/fulltext

We can have our own opinions, let others express theirs, and not need to express our own or pick a battle or adopt theirs. When we have trouble keeping out of such battles, there are self help groups which offer a lot of wisdom and support to "keep on our side of the street".

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