About having a group project in Korea

Sooin Moon

I’ve been living in foreign countries for almost 10 years, going to international schools and sometimes local schools, which gave me a lot of experience in group projects with many different cultural backgrounds. And then, coming back to Korea, and getting involved in lots of group works in business major classes, gave me some insights on how foreign students act differently from native Korean students, and make a huge misunderstanding. I’ve seen some students fight over something because of a wrong tone of voice, and sometimes because of the way work load was distributed. The thing is, most of the time when I lean back and look at those problems arising and making an uncomfortable atmosphere for both sides and eventually for the entire group, I feel like, it’s more about lack of understandings on Korean university culture, than actual problems being problems.

I’ll go right ahead with some examples, and somethings that I would suggest not to do.

First, you have to understand that most of the university students above sophomore are very likely to be wanting an all A, while not really devoting much into the group work. Well, it sounds weird, but it’s just some survival games we play with our lives despite our cultures being not be able to accept some outliers of any kinds of group. Simply put, people don’t want to look weird, which most of the case means being loud with his or her opinion, but they are so worried about their lives of not being able to get a job after graduation with bad grades, which is anything lower than A. For example, if you have to do a presentation on something that your group has to do a research on, most of the cases, people will mumble for some time because all they want is not-presentation-role or anything that requires too much work, and then say they will do some researches. Most of the time, no one will stand up to take a role of a leader to make things go smoothly or give each other’s some roles on the projects, because it will look like he or she can handle some attention, which might lead to presentation role. This is just the average thing you will see, and as the meaning of the average goes, you can see someone better than that or worse than that. So, I just hope you understand when they become so eager to get good grades, even when they were half of the time, only taking easy roles. It’s just that they are mentally pushed, seeing all their close friends or cousins getting good jobs or offers from companies, while not really understanding why and how their devotion of studying can affect their lives.


Most of the cases, Korean students who are currently in a one of the highest ranked school, like Hanyang university, have been studying a lot. Most the cases, they probably spent half of their life studying, to come here. And then they finally face the result, and amazing thing called freedom in university, they just lose their reason of life. Hence, most of the time, their purpose gets adjusted to getting a good job after graduation, which is no different from their high school years, which is going to a good university after the graduation. It is sad, but it’s really rare to find anyone who genuinely want to do something in their life. This has been going on for decades, and by now, it’s just embodied into most universities’ culture. And this, is who you will be seeing when you come to Korea. It’s not all guys with lack of interest in studying, or guys with completely full will of hard works. Half of the time, they are confused what they want to do with their life, while another half are driven by the idea that they should get good grades in order to make a living after graduation. Not such a bright situation, yes, but I think it is a very nice thing to know ahead, if you are ever willing to make a friend, or a good accompany with some Korean students, or in this case, have a group project.


Secondly, it’s kind of hard to get an understanding tone of voice when it comes to your personal life. When I was back in Thailand, with my international school friends, I had some projects going on, and right before the day of presentation, one of the project member said, he needed to go for a try out for a basketball team. The problem was, he was supposed to make the presentation for the team, with the lab results that the team made. However, most of the group was okay with it, and simply accepted that and moved on. Later, the same guy came to the group and said he was really sorry about what happened and is willing to do more work, if he has to, which he didn’t get a chance but still, everyone was happy to see that. However, in Korea, it’s quite rare to get some things like that. Say, if you take up a role in a group, then people expect you to do the thing, which “the part” can be modified or can get requests to edit or add more information right before the day it’s supposed to be presented. Simply put, it is expected for you to be available up until the due date, so no matter how early you finish your part, you might still need to be around. If you are not, because of personal reasons, it is quite likely that it’ll lead to some dissension later. I think, this lack of understanding for other’s personal situation comes from Korean culture of doing lots of favors to those who are close, but not so much to those not acquainted enough. Therefore, as someone who you don’t know, it is very not likely that you’ll get sympathetic voice when you say you can’t add more information just because you’ve finished your part weeks ago, and nobody checked it. As I’ve said up there, grade is a source of a frustration and confusion to Korean students. So you’ll not see them so strict about work, right until it looks like it’ll affect grade immediately and directly.

Lastly, I also suggest not to speak in so adamant way. It’s just not viewed as a polite thing. Even if you are strongly against the idea, you might want to go around a little bit. And, yes, everyone understands how time-wasting that procedure it is, but still culturally, it is not acceptable. For example, when you are deciding when to meet up for the project, and someone brings up Saturday, but you can’t. Then, you might want to say “I got some make-up classes on that day” or whatever that you can come up with. It’s so much better than, “I can’t go on Saturday”. Quite honestly, white lies are very well accepted if it comes to comforting others with no harms inflicted to both party. This was quite hard for me to adjust into, because I used to say, I’ve got to go to a party, so I can’t. But now, I just make up things if it’s not possible, because that’s way easier for people to cope with, when they have to adjust schedule. Well, I’m totally okay with adjusting mine, when they say no, but people never say no to my schedule, which I just have to make it sound more comforting for them. Hence, that’s what I’d suggest for you to do.

In the end, after reading my post again, it looks like I’ve made it look like Korean students are very cold and unwilling to make a hard effort, which is completely not true. You have you understand, that I’ve wrote this under the idea that you, like me, a foreign-to-Korean-culture-people, might get some wrong idea when you get into some conflicts within the group. Therefore, my entire post is based on the chance that you might get bad side of the neighbor. Sometimes, you can get really good members, like me in this semester, and enjoy the semester with them, even after the project. I’ve just made friends with my group member, because we all worked really hard and wanted to get a drink as a celebration, and somehow everyone wanted to make friends with each other. For someone, like me, who’s been to military and has no one who I know of in University, this group project was the best thing happened since my military graduation. In conclusion, I really wish you guys my best, but just in case, be prepared.

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