The Korea Herald


[Kim Seong-kon] Do we need anger management therapy?

By Korea Herald

Published : Dec. 13, 2023 - 17:30

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Due to South Korea's rapid industrialization and globalization, these days many Korean people comfortably meet a number of global standards that suit citizens of advanced countries. In this regard, foreign tourists frequently commend some laudable behaviors of Koreans, such as forming a line at the subway station, observing public etiquette and being considerate of other people. When waiting in line, foreigners say, Koreans even care about other people behind them and try to finish their business as quickly as possible for those who are waiting for their turn.

At the same time, however, foreigners point out that Koreans can be short-tempered and impetuous. Of course, not all the Korean people are like that, but many of us are undeniably impatient and impulsive, and can get easily upset and lose our tempers. We also frequently become emotional rather than rational. As a result, we might do something in a fit of anger and regret it later.

Whenever I turn on Netflix Korean dramas on television, for example, I frequently encounter verbal fight scenes, in which the actors shout loudly at each other. Since anger is contagious, it is uncomfortable to keep watching them arguing vociferously. Thus, I press the mute button.

In Korean society, it seems all right to flare up. In many other countries, however, it is not normal, and thus if you have an explosive temper, you are advised to do “anger management therapy.” In American society, on the other hand, you will have no friends if you lose your temper frequently. Indeed, I have seldom encountered anyone who flies into a rage in America. Even to a stranger, Americans smile when their eyes meet.

A few days ago, I went to a Korean restaurant near my home to pick up dinner I had ordered on the phone. I arrived on the scheduled pick-up time. Due to short staffing, however, I had to wait for half an hour at the counter. I saw that other American customers were waiting, too. There were also dine-in customers sitting at their tables, waiting for food. Surprisingly, no one complained about the tardiness. They just patiently waited for their turn. When their orders came out at last, they all smiled brightly, saying, “Thank you so much.”

At American airports where flight delays or cancellations are frequent, passengers also seldom complain or express anger. Especially when the reason was inevitable due to bad weather or connection problems, even the airline staff do not apologize. Still, however, I noticed that American passengers tolerate the inconvenience and wait for hours until they hear their boarding announcement or catch another flight.

In Korea, we would definitely be furious under such circumstances. In a restaurant where the service is slow, we would raise our voice, shouting, “What is this? How much longer do I have to wait? I will never come back here again!” At the airport, too, many of us would be upset and protest when we heard about much delayed or cancelled flights, even if the airline staff apologized.

I've heard some people suggest that Korean food might affect Korean people’s hot tempers. Indeed, Koreans’ favorite foods, such as, kimchi, gochujang or jjigae stews are all hot and spicy, not to mention Shin Ramyun. In addition, Koreans frequently put red hot pepper powder into side dishes and soups, so Korean food is generally peppery and pungent. Naturally, hot and spicy food may have something to do with Koreans' hot tempers.

Others argue that Korean peoples’ frustrations due to social injustice since the Joseon era are responsible for their hot and impetuous tempers. Indeed, some research reveals that many Koreans believe that they are the victims of social injustices. Therefore, many Koreans are angry at Korean society, which they think privileges only a few chosen elites.

Nevertheless, we should try to calm down, control our emotions and tolerate differences. There is a saying that an emotional man loses a fight already. In diplomacy, too, you lose the advantage if you become emotional. Besides, a calm, cool person is more charming than a short-tempered one. If we are cheerful and good-natured, our society will be a much more pleasant place to live in.

That is why we should launch a campaign not to be angry. We can begin the campaign at home by not frowning or shouting at our precious family members. Once I heard a humorous story about a Korean man who habitually vented his anger out on his wife. He went to a psychiatrist and asked for a prescription to cure his “incurable disease.” The doctor told him, “Go buy a needle. That is your prescription. Whenever you get angry with your wife, stick the needle into your arm. Then, you will know how your wife feels when you are upset.”

It would be embarrassing and even humiliating to need “anger management therapy.” Anger is a curable disease. We should build a pleasant society full of smiles and laughter.

Kim Seong-kon

Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. The views expressed here are his own. -- Ed.