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[AtoZ into Korean mind] Why Koreans feel compelled to stay busy -- or at least look like it

Preoccupation with busyness as virtue sees generational shift from postwar diligence to personal achievement strategy

By No Kyung-min

Published : Jan. 28, 2024 - 17:33

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“You must have been very busy lately.”

So starts many a conversation as a polite kind of South Korean icebreaker, often after having not met someone for quite a while. Responding to it by correcting its speaker with one's actual level of busyness is generally not advised.

In practice, the ideal response would be, “You must be far busier than me,” redirecting the statement back to the speaker to compliment them on their relative societal importance, thereby boosting their ego.

In a country that has long prided itself on its hardworking people, there is a deeply ingrained ethos that places high value on and encourages constant hustle and bustle.

The value placed on "busyness" in Korea is so strong that those who are not necessarily so busy may feel the need to fake it just to not appear unproductive in the eyes of others.

Busyness as a virtue

On Blind, an app for anonymous discussions among employees, workers here share -- often in a half-joking manner -- tactics for how to feign busyness, underscoring the perceived value of appearing to be busy in the eyes of others.

Some of the tips shared suggest “taking a deep sigh upon returning to your seat after being away for a while,” or “making fierce typing noises particularly during the last 30 minutes of the workday.”

An office worker surnamed Park, a Seoul resident in his 30s, feels that people sometimes use busyness -- genuine or feigned -- as a signifier of how important they are, comparatively.

"Some of my friends complain about working all day, but it sometimes sounds like bragging," he said. "I know they are busy, sure, but I feel like if they are genuinely busy, they wouldn't even have time to boast about it."

To that point, studies show that in many societies, being in a state of busyness serves as a symbol of one's social status and can thereby result in positive outcomes.

An article titled "The Moralization of Effort," published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, the lead author of which is research director Jared Celniker at Arizona State University, examines how displays of effort show moral character. It argues that exerting effort is considered "morally admirable," even when it doesn't yield "direct economic utility." The article is based on research samples in South Korea, France and the US, supported with cross-cultural data from the UK, Australia and India.

In other words, being busy is likely to confer an image of moral prestige, regardless of whether it produces any direct economic output.

To explain specifically Koreans’ obsession with busyness, Lee Dong-gwi, a psychology professor at Yonsei University, points to South Korea's modern history of industrialization, in which the country's "human resources" were considered the key to achieving rapid growth in a short period of time.

He explained that Korea's workplace culture became rooted in the principles of diligence and the enthusiasm to work hard during this time, as they were essential to survival during those postwar days of poverty, when food itself was scarce.

"In other words, Korean society has internalized the ethos of working diligently," he added.

This mindset persists to the present day, subjecting individuals to lead busy and competitive lives, and potentially imposing pressure on younger generations navigating a different contemporary social context.

Yet, the question lingers as to whether adhering to the same social demeanor of busyness carries the same meaning as before, in an era that increasingly values creativity over diligence.

"Not really," said professor Lim Myung-ho from Dankook University's department of psychology and psychotherapy, who emphasized the importance of relaxation and enjoying one's leisure time in order to recover physically and mentally so as to enhance effectiveness and productivity.

Despite Koreans putting in long working hours, the country lags behind in labor productivity compared to other major economies.

Korea ranked near the top -- No. 5 -- among the 38 member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in raw terms of its working hours per capita, with workers clocking in an average 1,901 hours annually in 2022, 149 hours more than the OECD average. When it comes to labor productivity, however, Korea fell near the bottom, at No. 33.

"Korean culture, with productivity and rationality forming the pillars of society, had its advantages in the past. However, in the aftermath of the nation's industrial development, it is taking a toll on people's minds," Lim commented.

Korean society views quantity as more important than quality, he continued. There is a widespread prejudice that if you don't seem busy, you don't have a role or duty in society. This reinforces the misconception that taking breaks or pursuing a balance between one's work and personal life are the opposite of being productive, noted Lim.

Nowadays, many young workers seek alternative paths, like a healthy work-life balance or to pursue the goals of the "Financial Independence, Retire Early" movement.

Workers more and more desire and choose to enjoy their personal lives outside of the workplace. According to a survey conducted in June last year by local research group Embrain that polled 1,000 workers, 46.7 percent of respondents preferred a 48-hour workweek, followed by 34.5 percent who desired a 52-hour workweek. Korean labor law currently limits the workweek to 52 hours.

Park, the 30-something office worker, stressed that quality should take precedence over quantity. What matters is not the amount of time put into effort, but the creative and brilliant ideas that can enhance one's effectiveness and improve performance, he added.

(Getty Images) (Getty Images)

'Godsaeng' amid uncertainty

Even among younger demographics here, while some aspire to break free from a hectic lifestyle, others actively pursue demanding schedules, embodying a lifestyle known as "godsaeng" in Korean.

However, this form of busyness is driven more by internal motivation than societal pressure, differing from the nation's existing norm of merely staying or appearing to be busy.

The portmanteau word "godsaeng,” -- derived from the English word "god," referring to supreme goodness or value in a spiritual or religious sense, and "saeng," meaning life -- refers to a goal-oriented lifestyle where practitioners put conscientious effort into managing their time efficiently, fostering a daily sense of achievement.

While prioritizing the maximization of time, both within and beyond the sphere of paid employment, individuals practicing godsaeng often share their experiences on social media platforms such as YouTube and Instagram.

In a survey of 300 respondents conducted by space rental platform SpaceCloud last year, over 90 percent expressed a desire to adopt the practice of godsaeng. Regarding the purpose of leading such lifestyles, the biggest group -- 34.3 percent -- cited the achievement of their life goals, followed by 30.7 percent who aimed for self-development.

The godsaeng trend seems to derive from the fear of lagging behind others, and more fundamentally it is linked to anxiety arising from an uncertain future -- financially, professionally or otherwise.

"This indicates that young people are gravitating toward something more manageable and tangible, such as themselves and their time, to gain a sense of control in a world of uncertainty," explained Yonsei psychology professor Lee. "'Godsaeng' can be viewed as a strategy of the younger generation to cope with uncertainty, to prepare for the future in one's own way, as there's no longer a standard formula that leads to success."

Nonetheless, an excessive preoccupation with spending every minute productively might give rise to negative side effects, such as depression and a tendency toward procrastination.

Lee, who is also author of the book “Why Do I Procrastinate?,” explained that an overwhelming workload and tightly packed schedule can lead to a state of procrastination, burdening individuals with the expectation to perform well on every front.

As a remedy, he advised people to steer away from a results-centric approach and to give oneself due credit for simply taking action. "Doing 70 percent rather than obsessing over perfecting something to 100 percent is sufficient," he said.

"The focus should be on putting in effort and self-reflection, with less emphasis on overthinking the final outcome."

"A to Z into the Korean mind" traverses the complexities of the Korean psyche, examining an array of mental and emotional phenomena and their cultural nuances through keywords in alphabetical order. – Ed.