Natalie is on the CultureBound staff as a trainer.

The Languages of Culture: Sound


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Natalie’ Story

I was born in Ch’ŏnan, South Korea, which is like an hour away from the capital city of Seoul. I was raised in a very conservative Christian family. When I turned 13, my family moved to Vancouver, Washington.

My uncle came to the United States when he was in his twenties for college to get his master’s degree. He started doing a dry cleaning business and he suggested my dad join him and help run his business here in America. So, my family moved here and I went straight into middle school.

Being raised in a conservative Korean family, we were a culture rooted in Confucius principles — respecting elders, being polite.

Silence is very important in Asian communication.

When I was a kid, we used to go visit grandma every Sunday. We had lunch together after church. I knew whenever I talked, or whenever I would say something to my mom, my grandmother would look at me and then kind of scold me because I wasn’t supposed to say anything while adults are eating and talking.

Also, because I am a girl, I was taught that I should be very reserved and quiet because it’s what it means to be a girl in that culture. Quiet, gentle, very submissive. I always knew that it was a good thing to be quiet and use less words and to listen more and see what kind of mood adults were in before talking.

I can’t express how important silence is in Korea. It’s a sign of politeness and respect. Listening and then just pausing before you answer someone’s question, is a part of having good manners, being polite. And when you’re listening, you show you respect the other person.

So, I was really surprised when I first moved here and started watching how kids didn’t hesitate to make their point or state their arguments. Even in a school when we had a classroom discussion, they’d just raise their hands and just give very clear answers and opinions. Even very young kids can articulate what they like or not.

When I was watching my friends in America with their parents, they were really talkative and chatty. I was surprised that the parents didn’t scold them, they just let them talk. It was definitely a cultural difference I experienced.

I was used to an indirect communication style in Korea. I realized here in America, people use very direct communication — they’re straight forward. So, sound is an important language of culture. And, in my case, being silent was too.

I also remember the sounds at night in Korea. There were always all these noises at nighttime and people walking and talking. But where I lived in Vancouver, it was very quiet at night. Everything gets really dark starting from 6:00 PM, and it’s very quiet and peaceful. Everybody is in their home just eating and enjoying family time. But in Korea people are outside everywhere and it’s noisier.

I think you can learn through sound about what kind of community or people you’re with and what kind of communication style they prefer. So, I tend to listen carefully when people are talking and it tells me a little bit about the environment I’m in. Sound has become a very useful tool for me.