I happen to be one of those people who wish they were a morning person. I set two alarms in the morning – one to wake me up and the other to tell me, “You’re going to be late, you slow, lazy, bum”. After hustling to get out of the house, a few blocks to the station, skipping every other step in the case up to the platform because of the extremely reliable irregularity of the trains, I am eager to wait.
Arriving at work, I’m usually either groggy or engrossed in some entirely irrelevant and abstract thought that has nothing to do with my quotidian ritual of waving my i.d. in front of the sensor next to the door or punching my card. The elevator is where it hits me. I’m still in stream-of-thought-mode and I try to walk through the doors to get on the elevator and someone is standing in front of me and all that comes out of my mouth is “Oh!” Normally, I would be adept enough to say, “Good morning,” but working in an environment when you’re surrounded by people who all speak another language that you have spent so much time trying desperately to learn, it’s not exactly the same process. It’s probably the most basic and awkward forms of confusion – that rushed, stressful feeling of desperately wanting to respond accompanied by a simultaneous, dumbfounded ‘what do I say?’
Of course, with a good 30 seconds of preparation, I’m able to come up with a suitable greeting, but human interactions are a lot quicker than that. Getting on and off the elevator is a fairly simple, brief action. This wouldn’t be a big deal if the culture you’re surrounded by isn’t all that into greetings. For example, if you’re learning English and you just came to America the likelihood of someone being offended by you would be pretty low. Especially, if you manage to get out the basic, universal human greeting – the smile. Most Americans will feel content having been smiled at as a greeting, especially at groggy morning hours and when you may have one of those seen-each-other-around acquaintances.
In Korean culture, however, greetings are important, especially at work, especially towards your superiors. Being fresh out of college and lacking military experience, I am undoubtedly the inferior of everyone else.
My colleagues, who are slightly older than I, are so adept at greetings that they can respond in the briefest situations. They can even squeeze a bow into the second it takes for the elevator doors to close. As for me, my most immediate reaction is an “Oh!” with a side of smile while I think to myself, ‘Dammit. Too slow’. Consider this my official confession that I have yet to make this habit of oral recognition instinctual and move past those awkward insa.