RELATIONSHIPS: How to Apologize to a Korean Woman

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Words by D. Chase Kang illustration by Sidney Goulet

 If you’re new to Korea, sooner or later you will find yourself in the awkward position of scrambling to figure out whether you’ve just breached some important rule of Korean etiquette or simply offended the sensibilities of a particular delicate snowflake. What is the best course in such situations and how do you best move things back on track towards romance?

Harmony, not Justice

First, you’ll need to throw out your Western notion of justice: these are, after all, women. Second, swallow your pride and apologize.

Just like car accidents and assaults, the how and why of assigning blame is far less important to Koreans than the notion of restoring the social imbalance caused by harm. And make no mistake: apologizing to a Korean woman amounts to no less than buying her off for her suffering, whether actual or imagined. A lot of guys get tripped up by applying Western standards of “fairness” and deciding for themselves whether something is worth getting upset about. Those guys go home from the bar alone and then make disgruntled posts on Daveseslcafe.

Harmony is the goal in Asia, not justice. Trying to argue or plead your case will only compound your lack of sensitivity with the further sin of cultural ignorance. Just man up and take solace in the fact that in Asia, apologizing is seen as an act of mature transcendence, not necessarily an admission of guilt.

How to Do It

Unlike our simple one-size-fits-all “I’m sorry” convention, apologizing to a Korean woman is a three-step process. The correct sequence goes like this:

  • Say you’re sorry.
  • Identify what you did & acknowledge her feelings.
  • Make reparations through sincere and positive effort.

1.  Both “미안해요” and “죄송해요” are functional equivalents of “I’m sorry.” Another useful expression is “잘 못했어요.” which roughly translates as “I was wrong.” I find the latter more authentic and convincing. It’s the difference between owning your error as opposed to merely begging forgiveness.

2. While it may seem trivial or even condescending for a man to verbalize sentences like “You waited a long time, huh?” or “You must be really angry,” I assure you that in Korea such statements serve the function of providing tangible evidence of one’s sincere regret. Furthermore, they help to defuse a woman’s nagging sense that you are oblivious to her emotions.

3. Here’s the rub: deeds, not words, are the currency of reparation. You’ll need to make a good faith effort not simply to lift her mood, but to actually demonstrate your sincere intent. The good news is that most Korean women are easily won over through conventional means such as treating them to something tasty (“맛있는거 해줄게”) or showing them a good time (“재미있게 해줄게”) which, in principle, you were probably willing to do in the first place.