Rejection in Korean: A Surprisingly Powerful Way
Rejecting invitations and requests
One thing I’ve come to love about Korean culture is being able to decline invitations and requests with a straightforward sentence, “Sorry. I have an appointment” (미안해요. 약속이 있어요). Roughly, this is the English equivalent of, “I have plans”. But it’s much more powerful. This is the get-out-of-anything card you can play in almost any situation (except for work-related requests). The reason this is effective is that, unlike in the west, you are not implicitly pressured to elaborate on said: “appointment”. You don’t have to explain the nature of your appointment, the reason, the time, who’s involved, or the location. It’s beautiful in its simplicity and effectiveness.
There doesn’t even have to be a real appointment. The appointment could be with your couch and a Netflix show. Koreans will not ask for details.
The fact that Koreans will wholeheartedly respect this comment without further inquiry is actually quite baffling. Because, like many aspects of Korean culture, there is a dichotomy at play. Commonly, and especially during introductions, Koreans will bluntly ask about your age, relationship status, details about your career, what kind of car you drive, which university you attended, which area you live in, your favorites and least favorites, family information, and anything else they deem important in assessing who you are. They don’t hesitate to tell you that you seemed to have gained or lost weight, you look tired or sick, or comment on your fashion choices. Although Koreans consider themselves to be very indirect, in their own way they can be very blunt. So it’s rather surprising that they don’t investigate further when you decline a request with, “I can’t. I have an appointment.” (못해요. 약속 있어요.)
Why it works
I have to be honest, I used to think this was just nonsense: a vague excuse to decline an invitation or get out of an obligation. Maybe it is. But the fact that it is so commonly used and accepted makes the possibility of it being nonsense irrelevant. Nobody really seems to care. It makes potentially awkward interactions simple and clear.
Instead of trying to come up with some elaborate half-truth to let the other person down easy, you just present them with a simple statement that gets the point across and nobody has to feel bad about it. Maybe there is an appointment, and maybe there isn’t. Regardless, the other person either doesn’t want to commit to whatever you’ve invited them to do, or they really don’t have the time. Nobody gets their feelings hurt, the communication was clear, details are not divulged, and nobody has to create or listen to a fabrication.
So the next time someone asks or invites you to do something you’d rather not do, just reply with “Sorry. I have an appointment.” (미안해요. 약속이 있어요) See if it works!