Most people agree that Eastern and Western cultures differ. However, I only realized how different these cultures are, between the U.S. and Korea, during my stay in New York. Among these many differences, three things especially stood out in New York.
First, people in Western culture do not feel afraid to state their opinion wherever or whenever they want. In the United States, people seem to freely express their opinions without worrying about their boss’s reaction. This is in contrast to Korea, where if someone in a superior position (like a boss, an elderly person, or an employer) is about to talk, everyone must listen carefully and agree with them to show them respect, without expressing their opinions about what is right or wrong. Because of this, in Korea the opinions of people in a relatively lower position are easily dismissed and considered inferior. Also, this kind of atmosphere of blindly following superiors may cause problematic issues, such as a lack of communication. However, in the “melting pot” of the U.S., everyone can put forward their opinions regardless of their age or social position. Thus, people often voice their opinions without hesitation or reservation. This way of communication felt active and rich, as opposed to the environment I felt when I worked in a Korean company.
Another cultural difference that surprised me was in New York saying “sorry” seems automatic for both parties involved when they have to excuse themselves. Moreover, people seem to freely say “thanks,” “hi,” and “bye.” In Korea, it is awkward to say these expressions often. When talking with a friend, people usually do not express their appreciation. I have no idea what accounts for these differences between Koreans and Americans, but I admired the way Westerners naturally expressed their positive emotions toward others and showed their gratitude toward receiving things.
The last cultural difference that was very unfamiliar to me was the culture of tipping. When you pay for food in Korea you have to go to the counter and pay your bill without any additional charges. However, in the U.S. you stay in your seat and the servers frequently check your table. They ask whether you are still eating, and if they think you are finished they will ask you “Are you ready to pay?” All you have to do is waiting until the servers ask. To reward the servers, you have to pay an additional charge called a “tip.” At lunch time, a tip is about 12~15 percent of the total bill, and at dinner it increases to about 15 to 20 percent. If you do not leave extra cash in the form of a tip with your bill as you leave a restaurant, your server may follow you and ask, “Weren’t you satisfied with my service?” Usually, tips make up the majority of a server’s salary, so this is very important to them. Although it is not regulated by law, it is a fixed culture in the U.S., so appropriately paying tips will help you avoid minor troubles.
In sum, if you are concerned about staying abroad, whether as an exchange student or a worker, I strongly recommend going and enjoying a foreign country for at least six months. This is what companies ask for from job applicants, in the name of global experiences, so you should not hesitate. It does not have to be the U.S., but if you are considering where to go, I would suggest at least leaving Asia if I were you.