The concept of time may be a difficult one to grasp, but for everyday purposes there is a standardized system that keeps the world ticking.
In Korea, however, some things run on a different scale, Korean time.
“Korean time” describes the widespread tardiness or, more specifically, the relaxed attitude with which Koreans approach appointment times.
Being a few minutes late to an appointment without giving prior notice is almost the norm among friends, and even being late by an hour or more is not uncommon.
Being late is so common that statements such as “You can come late too” are common, if not acceptable, responses to criticism about being late.
“When a meeting with friends is arranged, nobody seems to arrive at the exact time,” a 25-year old office worker surnamed Yoo said.
“So, when I am arranging to meet a group of friends for dinner at 7 p.m., I set the time at 6 p.m. then just about everyone arrives at the time I intended. This way, nobody has to waste time waiting for people to arrive.”
Such habits are apparent in the way we form sentences concerning time.
When setting up a meeting with a friend, Koreans often say “What time, roughly?” instead of being more specific.
Even when a specific time is chosen, the time is often vague, with many accustomed to saying “around” or “about” a specific hour.
It is unclear how or why Koreans came to have this unusual approach to time, but some theorize that Korean time originates from how our ancestors designated time.
Starting from 11 p.m., one day was divided into 12 units, with each unit spanning what would be two hours by today’s standards.
Under the system, a meeting time set for the sixth hour could be any time between 9:01 a.m. and 10:59 a.m.
To break time down into shorter intervals, the two-hour time period was divided into eight parts, each part equivalent to roughly 15 minutes today.
Some believe that it is customary for Koreans to show up 15 minutes past a meeting time because of this concept.
Others say Koreans’ apparent lax attitude towards time, which is slowly fading, particularly in professional spheres, comes from the fact that Korea was an agricultural society until relatively recently.
However, being tardy is not the only manifestation of Koreans’ flexible approach to time.
When a Korean is the one having to wait, previously acceptable delays suddenly become a “big deal.”
A wait of as little as 5 minutes, particularly when waiting for food at a restaurant or for a bus, often leaves a Korean flustered and tapping his watch, repeating, “Why is it not coming?”
By Choi He-suk and Suh Ye-seul