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[AtoZ into Korean mind] Humor in Korea: Navigating the line between what's funny and not

Beneath Koreans' laughter, intricate interplay of sensitivity to hierarchical structures, power relations in different group settings

By Shin Ji-hye

Published : April 22, 2024 - 16:45

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Yoon Jin-hee, 37, describes herself as a bubbly and funny personality, always cracking jokes first when around friends. But at work, she seldom reveals her witty side.

"At work, only bosses make jokes. I've never seen a subordinate make a joke to their boss," said Yoon, who works for a government agency.

“Male superiors mostly make ‘ajae’ jokes, which are hardly ever amusing,” she said. The term, based on “ajae,” a word for middle-aged men, is roughly equivalent to a "dad joke."

“It is not really funny, but we just go ‘hahaha’ to avoid an awkward atmosphere,” she said.

The power to joke

Yoon’s boss, in his 50s, calls himself “Latte Lee,” a moniker used by no one else but himself, because he often employs the term “Latte,” a pun on the Korea phrase “na ttae,” meaning “in my day.”

“Latte” is used by older generations when making half-joking critiques of younger ones, as they recount their own experiences from times they perceive as having been much tougher.

Sometimes, the problem is not that the jokes are not funny, but that they are inappropriate.

A few months ago, when an upper-level employee in his 50s in Yoon’s office was preparing for an overseas business trip and noticed that the hotel was expensive, he said, “I should share a room with a female staff member for the sake of the national treasury,” laughing.

Yoon thought his remarks were outright problematic, but just laughed along.

Kim Byung-min, 31, who works at a media firm, echoed similar sentiments.

Humor is toned down at work, because there is anxiety among employees about how the humor would be received or how a failed attempt at humor could make them appear less serious.

“You don’t crack jokes with someone after addressing them ‘bujangnim’ or ‘sangmunim,’ he said.

"Bujang" means "department head" and "sangmu" means "executive-level director." The suffix "nim” is added to the titles as a form of respect.

Outside the superior-subordinate dynamic, humor could be more freely employed within the workplace among donggi, who are akin to friends at the office, Kim said.

“Although we are not super close, our relationship is much more casual,” he said. “We also naturally joke around when it’s just us.”

Donggi are colleagues who joined the company in the same year, or in some cases, more strictly, on the same day. For instance, those who joined the company six months earlier might be considered “seonbae” or seniors, rather than donggi.

Numerous studies emphasize the beneficial effects of laughter and humor in the workplace, such as alleviating stress and anxiety, boosting employee morale and creativity and lowering turnover rates. Overall, they suggest humor is a vital element of a healthy workplace culture, just as it is in any human group.

Yet in reality, who jokes, what is joked about, and how jokes are received are deeply embedded in the context of workplace hierarchies and power structures.

Michael Kerr, an international business speaker and author of “The Humor Advantage: Why Some Businesses are Laughing all the Way to the Bank” was quoted in a Forbes article that the amount or type of humor you’ll find in any given workplace depends almost entirely on the culture.

“In workplaces that encourage people to be themselves -- that are less hierarchical and more innovative -- people tend to be more open with their humor,” he says. “Even people who aren’t always comfortable sharing their humor tend to do so in more relaxed environments where the use of humor becomes second nature with everyone’s style.”

Daniel Tudor, a former journalist and author of “Korea: The Impossible Country,” said exercising humor here requires a tricky balancing act.

“I don't think Korean bosses lack humor. Rather, I think that if you make the decision as a boss to be more democratic and open in style -- including allowing your staff to joke around with you a little -- you may be taken for a pushover.”

He personally experienced these dynamics when he ran a startup here, he said.

“To your staff, you can become either ‘hogu’ (a pushover) or ‘kkondae (condescending),’” Tudor said.

“It's very difficult to be anywhere in between. I think the heart of it is that there's an expectation of rigidity and hierarchy, and if you don't adhere to it (whether you're lower or higher in the chain), you will struggle,” he said.

“In general, in Korea, these kinds of hierarchical relationship structures are followed more strictly, so if a superior makes a joke and embarrasses themselves, people may misunderstand it a little at first,” Jeon Joong-hwan, an associate professor of evolutionary psychology in Humanitas College at Kyung Hee University, explained.

“However, as time passes, you tend to like them more, thinking that they are not a 'pushover' but a truly democratic and open boss. However, because we haven't met many capable leaders who also use self-deprecating humor, we tend to feel a little unfamiliar with it," he continued.

Safe jokes, risky jokes

In the realm of performed comedy, two things are noticeable: Political satire is relatively weak in Korea, while stand-up comedy is virtually non-existent.

Also, there’s a fine line existing in the selection of material: Koreans generally prefer humor that entertains without relying on making fun of others in front of a group. Sexual topics are considered off-limits, while joking about someone’s physical traits or appearance is more tolerated.

In recent years, however, the range of topics covered in comedy has broadened, with the rise of platforms like YouTube and streaming services. This situation is in contrast to the era of broadcast network TV dominance in Korea, when stricter guidelines were in place regarding the use of slang, vulgar language and the appropriateness of topics featured in its programs.

Saturday Night Live Korea, or SNL Korea, has been somewhat of a trailblazer in Korea's comedy scene, venturing into bolder political satire and exploring sensitive issues that are untouched by broadcast TV.

Currently aired on local streaming platform Coupang Play, the show in early March featured a skit in which comedian Kim Min-kyo impersonated President Yoon Suk Yeol and pledged to safeguard the “right to satire,” mirroring Yoon’s own remarks made during his 2021 appearance on SNL Korea, then as a presidential candidate.

Political satire, however, still remains relatively uncharted territory in Korea, often viewed as too risky due to the possibility of backlash from those in power.

During Park Geun-hye's presidency from 2013 to 2017, the conservative administration, amid its perception that SNL Korea was "leftist," attempted to sway CJ Group, which had started broadcasting the show on CJ's television network, tvN, in 2011.

The satirical portrayal of Park on SNL Korea was not the only issue for the administration; CJ's backing of films like "The Attorney," which is based on the real-life story of liberal President Roh Moo-hyun, also contributed. It was revealed later that in 2013, Park’s presidential office pressured Miky Lee, vice chair of CJ Group and the driving force behind the group’s cultural projects, to resign.

It’s uncertain whether such government attempts to intervene in comedy programming persist today. But Korea’s fledging political satire faces another threat -- a populace that is increasingly polarized according to political allegiance.

In 2018, comedian Kim Won-hyo’s satirical portrayal of then-Gyeonggi Province Gov. Lee Jae-myung faced a strong backlash from some viewers, although the politician himself responded that he enjoyed the show and even that he looked forward to sharper political satire.

Conservative viewers also criticize recent satire programs on SNL Korea, which they perceive as being biased against the current conservative administration.

Experts note that during Joseon era (1392-1910), wit and satire were more commonly employed against the class system and the nobility.

The paintings by Joseon artists like Sin Yun-bok, for example, satirize upper-class “yangban” families. Sin’s and other artworks from that era do more than just ridicule; they often overflow with insight into humanity and display sophisticated wit, they said.

"In modern Korea, satire did occasionally emerge, but always with caution under the scrutiny of those in power, including military juntas," Cultural columnist Ha Jae-keun told The Korea Herald.

"This affected the country’s comedy landscape in two significant ways: Comedians had fewer opportunities to sharpen their satirical skills, and audiences were not well-prepared to embrace satire with laughter," he said.

Making fun of others seen as criticism

Today, some Koreans say they feel uneasy with the kind of humor that relies on making fun of others, sarcasm or satire in general, whether those targeted are politicians or not.

"Some people tend to elicit laughter by poking fun at others. But I struggle to appreciate such humor, as it carries the risk of offending other people,” Kang Eun-gyeong, 51, a housewife, said.

She has had experiences of hiding her hurt feelings and trying to appear cool and unaffected in cases where she has ended up the subject of ridicule.

"Maybe, this is related to Koreans being not really good at accepting criticism, or even advice, especially in front of others," she said.

Seo In-hye, a 41-year-old housewife, said she is sometimes called a “jinjichung” for her inability to simply laugh along with certain kinds of humor.

“That’s mostly when I express my discomfort about comedians mocking people like overweight individuals, people with disabilities and those of color.”

The term "jinjichung" is colloquial slang for someone who takes humor too seriously. It combines "jinji," meaning serious, with "chung," a derogatory suffix meaning "insect," indicating an excessive obsession.

“I believe laughing and making fun of someone might provide a moment of pleasure, but I wonder if it’s appropriate to call such fleeting joy true humor,” she said.