Paek-pok is another Korean expression I enjoy. Supposedly, it’s used the following way:
A:Do you like my haircut?”
B:” It kind of ages you and makes you look round in the face”
A: “Ouch. Way to paek-pok me.”
My discussion of brutal honesty begins with a little story involving my Cousin M, a now elderly Korean woman who married into my mother’s family. She is a spitfire and a matriarch with a big, generous spirit. When she first met my husband a long time ago at a loud Italian restaurant in midtown Manhattan, my husband and I were busy eating at a long table at the opposite end from her when she yelled ” Why (my husband’s name here)! Your hands so tiny like a lady!” For a longtime after, my husband told this story, evidencing his very Canadian, self-effacing humor.
I rightly or wrongly associate blunt honesty with Koreans. In my defense, the only people who have told me that at least a certain older generation of Koreans are known for being blunt, are Koreans and I’m of course Korean, so it seem safe. Besides, I am shining a positive light on blunt honesty here. While visiting South Korea years ago and staying at the social welfare agency where I lived as a baby before being adopted, I met many wonderful Korean people– a fair share of them blunter than most Americans I know. My foster mother with whom I joyfully reunited, greeted me with compliments about my appearance (a translator in tow) and, without asking, spent a fair share of lunch leaning over the cafe table to pick the few premature grey hairs out of my head. I found this incredibly endearing! Later on, a bus full of older Korean women loudly tsk-ed my friend and I when we hopped back on the bus after visiting the DMZ and started jovially yelling “You’re so slow. You kept us waiting!!” in Korean. Another day, a sales woman refused to let me try on a dress at a store, crossing her arms over her chest and saying “too big! too big!” which alarmed me. But maybe it was the spirit of the trip and my long-awaited connection to my mysterious origins; I soaked up the bluntness and relished each encounter.
My cursory online “research” on whether brutal honesty is a characteristic acknowledged by Koreans suggests the answer is yes. One Korean commenter noted that Koreans have a Confucian devotion to family first and friends/coworkers but do not have as much concern for strangers and other acquaintances. This means one may be more likely to get bumped into on the street in Korea without a subsequent apology as the common belief is one doesn’t need to apologize for a natural accident. But the Confucian ideology may explain why my Korean friends here seem to not only revere their elderly relatives but more readily open their households to them when their elderly relatives are needy. How admirable! Maybe, we could benefit from more filial loyalty and less artificial politeness? (Though I realize a strong argument for opening up Korean society to diverse ideas and people).
Most of us have a friend/co-worker who is reliably blunt. I have one such friend whom I trust for her true opinion. As someone often in my own head who is prone to denial and a la-dee-da feeling that life is a series of vagaries beyond one’s control, I value how her bluntness grounds me to reality. As she’s a self-reflective human, she has admitted that she knows it rubs people the wrong way at times. I imagine that she’d be an effective life coach for she has much advice, some unsolicited and it’s often spot on. Is there anyone who doesn’t sometimes want to be told what to do and why? From her, for example, I have learned my ADHD medication has certainly worked (I had some doubts); for as she explained, I used to flake out socially quite often and now I’m on time and reliable. Not every friend will lay it out for you like that.
Recently, cleaning out a closet of mine that is filled with yearbooks and scrapbooks I used to make that detail my life in embarrassing minutiae, I came across the following cartoon drawn by a guy friend of mine– a co-counselor at a summer camp for children with Diabetes. I remembered this guy was an artist and I’d like to give him credit but I can’t remember anything but his first name, Brian. I was looking at it and enjoying how he made each of us counselors represent a part of a zombie.
Then I scanned down to find my representation. See below photo 2. Above my name, foot rot. FOOT ROT! It is too long ago for me to remember anything about the meaning behind this fab association but there’s a possibility, I suppose, that I may have had stinky feet at least on one occasion or maybe dear Brian did not hold me in high regard. Maybe it’s just good fun. But could I not have been the fig leaf or the shins?
I recently told a young friend about an app I swear once existed where you could anonymously email or was it text a coworker a truth that that person needed to hear like “you have a terrible hair piece.” Searching for online info re this app though, I found nothing, which either confirms that I’m a terrible internet searcher or this was something in my imagination. I think we can all agree, anonymous brutal honesty is something the world can do without.
This post makes me think of how we teach our kids to be honest but also encourage them to be nice and polite to others–thereby encouraging white lies that protect people’s feelings. Such confusing but well-meaning directives! My husband, again Canadian, always says that being nice is undervalued and I agree, but I think so is honesty. Even the blunt kind. I marvel at the many ways, often comic, that people try to balance being honest and being polite. One friend told me she coughs when asked a question that she doesn’t want to answer for fear of offending someone. Some people might say “interesting” to mean “I disliked it.” For me, I become a monotone robot when I dislike something (“nice!”) but if I like it, I’m a hemorrhaging sychophant. (“OMG this is the most mind blowing novel. I am seriously blown out of the water like, I wish i could have a pinky of your talent. I grovel at your feet!”)
I can count a handful of times that I have wielded the brutal honesty axe, to varying degrees of success. The bad includes the time I asked my friend’s banker friend why he loved money so much, which made him cross and quiet. Go figure. Then there was the time I had a volunteer in my legal services office who was an LLM student. He was a sweet guy with a disheartening inability to do any of the tasks required of a legal intern, even after months of guidance. The degree of inability could not be easily explained-not language barrier, personality conflict or lack of interest. His grades suggested a debilitating learning disability was not the problem. One day, he came into the office and told me his life story and his dilemma: should he go back to his country where life would be easy as his father was a successful, well connected attorney or stay in United States where he would clearly struggle indefinitely. I told him that it sounded like he wanted to go home, which is my version of brutal honesty and he took my advice and left. I hope I’m right in thinking I saved him great torment here and I suspect I am.
Another context in which I’ve wanted to be brutally honest is the classic creative writing workshop, though this is strongly discouraged so I haven’t. But how my body sometimes shakes, wanting to yell out “For the love of the Lord, have you learned nothing? You can’t have dialogue that noone can follow and you can’t write dialogue that is exactly the way two boring people speak to each other unless you are famously talented and you cannot have a character repeatedly say “Bow down to the pink pussy,” out of the blue for no understandable reason. (How I wanted to save this workshop student from years of torturous writing. He’d advised us he had written ten novels, all unpublished, which sent some shivers down my spine. I think everyone should write but should everyone share? Oh dear, I’m half joking. I swear I’m a great workshop participant. Really).
What techniques, if any, do you use to balance honesty and niceness? Do you ever wish you could just let it rip and tell people what you think of them? Try it but don’t get hurt.