Yesterday I was engaged in some of the routine business of office life: scrounging around in the well-stocked seventh-floor kitchen for spoons and stir sticks to bring up to our kitchen on the ninth floor. It’s the sort of thing that needs to happen, but that you always look sort of dumb doing.
Spoons and stir sticks in hand, I headed for the elevator, where Sara (note: some names will be changed in this blog, including this one), one of the secretaries, was also waiting. When the elevator doors slid open, there was Ambassador Kim (no name change there — he’s the top man and everyone knows it) standing in the back, looking grim as usual, with a couple of senior diplomats flanking him. Rather than stepping into the elevator, Sara just stood there, and I followed her lead. I wasn’t sure what the deal was, but I figured I should probably show whatever deference she was showing.
I haven’t felt the need to be all that deferential to most of the diplomats here. They seem to see me as something like them, or at least on the level of the lowest-ranked diplomats. They talk policy with me and respect my work — it is, after all, their words that I shape — so I’m not treated like the secretaries and administrators. (Another key difference is that I’m a man; Korean culture is still quite sexist, and there are only two female officers at the mission, whereas all the secretaries are women.) With the ambassadors — that is, with the deputy permanent representatives — I’m more deferential, but not particularly more than I would be in the office of a VP at a company, although I try to lay on what little Korean etiquette I know: give things with two hands, bow, throw out a polite-formal greeting in Korean when I think of it.
But Ambassador Kim is different. Everyone shows him a great deal of respect, and in ways that feel fundamentally different from the respect that is shown to, say, the CEO of a major American company. I’d be careful and respectful around a CEO, but I wouldn’t bow low and scurry ahead of him to open doors, as the Koreans tend to for Ambassador Kim. When I see the ambassador, I try to behave as respectfully as possible, but I simply lack the set of skills required to do the whole deference thing correctly. I think I’d find it easier to approach the Queen of England correctly.
I have yet to exchange more than a very few words with Ambassador Kim. I once entered his office to hand over a copy of a speech I had written for him — his version is printed in larger type so that it is easier to read at lectern distance — and I believe he grunted at me. But I didn’t work with him on the speech. That was all done through the intermediary of a Counsellor. (You can see the rank structure here.) I have no idea what kind of a man Ambassador Kim is, or whether he’s as dour as he looks. We’re supposed to have lunch with him soon, but it has yet to be scheduled. I’m curious, though, and hope I get a chance to learn more about him soon.