One thing I’ve learned during my three-year adventure in Mandarin Chinese and now Korean is that throughout the course of developing proficiency in a new language, subconsciously picking up on foreign physical mannerisms as well as vocabulary, grammar, and the ever-elusive intonation is inevitable. Launching into automatic imitations of your new society’s body language is at once a source of not only fascination at the brain’s ability to mimic subtle social cues but also some frustration if the mannerisms are annoying ones that you’d rather not perpetuate. But you quickly discover that your status as a new initiate to such behaviors grants you an explicit awareness of their existence that people born into the actions may not have, and this makes for some interesting observations.
One of the most poignant examples from my Korean experience is something that nearly everyone seems to do so much that the behavior becomes almost satirical once you start to notice it. The action is a sharp intake of breath through the teeth while cocking one’s head to the side, as though trying to shake out a thought that just won’t fit through the neck of an insufficient cognitive bottle. It seems roughly equivalent to an English “hmmm…” or a “well…” (“welp,” if you will) and is generally elicited by asking someone a question that they are unable to answer without some extra mental effort, as in this video interview with actor 한석규 (example at 1:12):
However idiosyncratic it might seem, this behavior catches on with the virulence of Ebola. I found myself doing it in Korean conversations within a month of moving to Seoul; within another few weeks, the habit had crept into even my Chinese. During an extended return to the States last winter, breaking myself of the proclivity to inhale escaping thoughts through my teeth took me nearly twice as long as it had taken to pick up the habit. I had never once seen my boyfriend, a Korean who lived for more than ten years in the United States, do it while speaking Korean with me until we moved back to Seoul, where it took him but a few days to become one of the most energetic head-cocking-teeth-breath-suckers in my social circle. That really sounds more dirty than it is.
Another interesting habit that Korean people seem to have is that they nod a lot while they’re talking (but not necessarily while they’re listening, when affirmation is generally expressed with small “ah’s” and “oh’s”), as seen in this interview of golfer 김효주:
Korean people (especially women) also tend to cover their mouths when they laugh:
(Examples at 0:15, 0:31, 0:46, 0:54, 1:24, 1:43, 3:00, 4:06… etc.)
This habit is also among the more difficult ones to break, no matter how subconsciously and insidiously it was adopted in the first place. And it’s especially annoying considering its mildly sexist gender specificity. Are my brazen female teeth offensive to the world?
No, but some furtively efficient machinery in the suggestible social brain doesn’t seem to care.