[Viewpoint] The peculiar power of a small mind

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[Viewpoint] The peculiar power of a small mind

It’s amazing, the power of words. One can perceive some aspect of the world about him, but somehow that aspect doesn’t really snap into focus until one learns the word for it with its full definition. A new word can nail down either a new concept or crystallize what had not been defined.

Struggling with the Korean language, a week ago I was introduced to the word janmeori. I was told that, literally, it means “small mind.” While it has a similar connotation to the English pejorative “small-minded,” it has a broader and yet more specific meaning.

Any adult who has lived in Korean society for more than a few months will readily recognize the janmeori aspect of this culture. That is, daily most Koreans are constantly working the angles, pushing the envelope in small, quiet measures so as to get some kind of incremental advantage - while not paying attention to the larger consequences of their cumulative behaviors.

In an extremely competitive society as this one, Koreans truly excel in janmeori. It can often be a way of not only getting ahead but also keeping up with the pack. The obvious downside is that these creative and industrious individual behaviors often sabotage the group’s vitality overall. This concentration on the janmeori level may explain in partv why Koreans are not generally well regarded for strategic or long-term planning. On the other hand, janmeori’s positive aspects include Koreans being justifiably recognized as world-class tacticians, capable of leveraging special opportunities and/or psychologically wearing down their opponents - often with little or no preparation.

Discussing this aspect of Korean culture with some mature Korean friends, we surmised that while this kind of behavior is common in most cultures, it is unusually strong in Korea. Our best guess why this may be so goes not so far back to when Korean life was confined to small villages and neighborhoods of larger town and cities. There was little mobility in Korean life.

Everyone knew each other in their immediate environment that they rarely ventured away. There was marginal horizontal mobility.

At the same time, by living within a strict Confucian culture, everyone knew his and her place in society. That is, there was also very little vertical mobility.

In other words, Koreans have learned to live within narrow social constraints. Naturally, most people are not satisfied with social limitations, particularly if they see others about them trying - and succeeding - in beating the system whenever possible. Since so many people are engaged in this kind of activity, most people are capable of getting away with various dodges, with only a few unlucky individuals getting caught and being punished.

Furthermore, many people rationalize that if they don’t exercise a bit of janmeori here and there, they may end up being at a major disadvantage.

Janmeori is not found just in the lower levels of society. One may argue that the mentality can be found in the highest and most sophisticated levels of Korean thinking. For example, it has been opined that the ultimate downfall of Park Chung Hee was in a sense janmeori.

The late dictator was masterful in pushing and cajoling South Korea forward to attain his short- and medium-term goals. At the same time, he lacked a practical, long-term political vision that could accommodate South Korea’s economic and intellectual development. As a result, for the greater welfare of the nation, his early demise in office - by natural cause or otherwise - was a foregone conclusion.

One may also say that janmeori is at work in North Korea at the highest levels.

The Pyongyang ruling oligarchy has been absolutely brilliant in going it alone, playing friends and adversaries against each other, while confounding the rest of the world from a remarkably weak position.

At the same time, it is painfully obvious the North lacks a genuine, long-term survival strategy other than to continue to practice janmeori statecraft until some unforeseen miracle happens.

Looking back at matters closer to home, many Korean and expatriate managers are often exasperated by janmeori behavior among their staff.

A Korean physician friend runs a major health center with 300 employees just outside of Seoul. She told me when she was made managing director, she found the nurses and the doctors were often competing against each other on the janmeori level. She resolved to put a stop to it.

First, she made it clear through a series of announcements and one-on-one conversations that she would not tolerate janmeori interfering with the overall mission of the center.

Second, she noted who was paying attention and who was ignoring her admonitions.

And third, she created an inner circle of doctors and nurses who got the message, excluding those who refused to give up janmeori behavior. In time, the entire center got the message. While janmeori still exists there, it has been greatly reduced.

So, Koreans have a word for it. And they have ways of dealing with it. The word has given me a better focus on this aspect of Korea.

Perhaps I can now more effectively interact with the certain janmeori that surrounds me.

*The writer is the president of Soft Landing Consulting, a technology sales and marketing firm (www.softlandingkorea.com).

by Tom Coyner
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