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The Enneagram and Korean Culture


What enneatype is Korea? This question was raised two years ago when I was doing a Train-the-Trainer program in Korea on Bringing Out the Best in Yourself at Work, but was revisited this past January during a “Coaching with the Enneagram” certificate program.

Two years ago, when I asked this question, almost everyone I spoke with was confused by the question. They would say nothing or make suggestions (ranging from types 1-9), giving some rationale for their response. This past January, I got the same response. However, one person said with certainty: “We are an Enneatype Four!” And so, I was intrigued, because Korea bears so little resemblance to France, an obvious type Four culture. However, my recent trip gave me the opportunity to think about this question, to observe how Koreans behave and respond in different situations, and to discuss the topic with many people who know the Enneagram and also live in Korea. My conclusion is that Korea is most likely an Enneagram Four culture, but a social subtype Four, not the one-to-one subtype Four culture that is so obvious in France. These more subdued social Fours can look very different form their more dramatic, more flamboyant one-to-one cousins.First, here are the 3 variations (subtypes) of Enneagram Four:

Three Subtypes of Enneagram Style Four
All Fours desire a feeling of deep connection both with their own interior worlds and with other people as a way to avoid feeling deficient or not good enough. Because they believe there is something lacking within them – although they cannot define exactly what this is – Fours consciously and unconsciously compare themselves to others (referred to as envy) as a way to determine what is wrong, consequently feeling superior, deficient, or both. There are three distinct ways in which Fours manifest these characteristics.

Self-Preservation Subtype Fours try to bear their suffering in silence as a way to prove that they are good enough by virtue of enduring inner anguish. In addition, they engage in nonstop activity and/or reckless behavior as a way to feel excited and energized and to avoid not feeling as good as others. Of all three subtypes, self-preservation Fours do not appear to be as envious or sensitive as the other two subtypes of Fours.

Social Subtype Fours focus more on their deficiencies and also on earning the understanding and appreciation of the groups to which they belong. They want understanding and appreciation for their suffering and sorrows, and desire acknowledgment for their heartfelt contributions to groups, while at the same time they often feel marginal to or not fully part of groups.

One-to-One Subtype Fours feel compelled to express their needs and feelings outwardly and can be highly competitive with others to gain attention, to be heard, and to be acknowledged for their perspectives and accomplishments. Winning is perceived as another venue for being understood, and coming out on top is seen as a way to resolve their continuous comparisons with others.

Now, I’ll explain why I’ve come to this conclusion and then share some anecdotes from Koreans themselves when I asked, “Could you be a social 4?”

A nostalgia for the past
Almost every Korean I have met in Korea (as opposed to people of Korean ancestry living outside Korea) knows and talks about their history of what “once was,” particularly the time period before their beloved empress was raped and killed. This occurred before they were born, but the sadness (which is more obvious in them than the anger) is still there. I’ve been taken to the palace, heard the story over and over, as if it just happened. There is a definite melancholia to the story, the storytelling, and the story-teller, along with a need to repeat the story multiple times.

A sense of “we are different from other countries; we are a little better, or are we?”
The Koreans are very proud of their culture and traditions. Of course, every country is different in its own way, but in Korea, they need to tell you about their culture, how it is unique, special, and different, often with a sense of being a little better than others. When I went there 2 years ago, I was thirsting for Korean BBQ. Every evening I was taken out to a delicious dinner, but never to a place that served what I wanted to eat (or served Korean BBQ)! They would ask for my preference, but then we would never go there.On both trips, my hosts wanted to show me what they are most proud of in their cuisine, which includes not only the various eating and serving utensils, but the ingredients, and especially how they are presented. There is a definite emphasis on presentation of gifts, food, and clothing as if the way something looks (image) matters every bit as much as what is inside. And every time I was offered something, there was an expectant look, as if waiting for me to comment on how good, special, nice, pretty, delicious something was. More than any other place I’ve ever been, I was asked these questions repeatedly: “Isn’t this good?” “Isn’t Korea a great place?” “What do you think of Korea?” “How do you like it here?” “What do you think of us?”

Emotional Sensitivity
Both times in Korea, my experience has been that people want to talk about emotional situations and issues. When I ask for volunteers to present a situation in front of the other program participants, the volunteers almost always offer something that would be considered too highly personal in other countries. One day I was invited to go to lunch by a woman who wanted to ask me how to handle a situation that was as deep and personal as anything that has ever been shared with me, and I really hardly knew her.

On the last day, a volunteer, a male Seven, used a highly personal situation about which he initially said he had little feeling, then found out through the process we used how deeply emotionally and sad he felt. At the end, 75% of the participants were crying – there were 45 participants – but the most emotionally affected were the others Sevens and the Threes. Participants of these two types had rivers of tears streaming down their faces, men and women of all ages. This is not exactly what one might expect from Sevens and Threes generally. Perhaps the program was especially powerful for them, and there were 11 Sevens and a large number of Threes. However, my hunch and experience is that Sevens and Threes in a social subtype Four culture just feel more OK being emotional or have more access to their sorrow because the culture supports this.

Since I came home, many of the emails or Facebook messages I’ve received from the participants include some version of this: “I miss you.” It was a really great program and I was deeply touched by them as well. Still, the level and frequency of emotional expressiveness does give a strong indication of Korea’s cultural enneatype.

And more
I could give more examples, but then this blog would be very long. However, I do want to share the reactions of people from Korea when they asked me what type I thought Korea might be. When I said, “Maybe social subtype Four,” the first response was always this: “Really?” But after the initial surprise, almost everyone came to agree with this idea. I think that these discussions helped illuminate something about the context in which they live that would be near impossible any other way. And after these discussions about Korea’s type, the next question was this: “So how do we compare to China?!” I’d smile to myself, seeing and hearing a very Fourish question of comparison: Are we different? Are we worse or better? But, it is also a fundamental question of identity, whether this be personal or cultural.

Who am I? This is the fundamental question for everyone, but Heart styles Two, Three, and Four have fewer clear answers. Beatrice Chestnut, my friend and colleague, brought this to my attention several years ago as she explained object relations theory and type. To make an intricate and useful concept simple for the purposes of this blog, Bea suggests that the Body Center styles (Eight, Nine, One) have a disturbance in being “held” or “supported”; The Head Center styles (Five, Six, and Seven) have issues with feeling “safe” or “not scared“; and the Heart Center styles (Two, Three, Four) have angst about “not being sufficiently mirrored” by early caretakers to know who they are. As a result, the Heart Center styles create an image of who they are as a substitute for not knowing who they really are. For this reason, the Heart styles have an even bigger challenge than the other Enneagram styles in finding the answer to this important question: Who am I?

And I look forward to my next Korean trip, which will be in January 2012.

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Jo Robertson
Jo Robertson
4 years ago

Thank you so much for this confirmation and explanation, I’ve been watching lots of Korean film and drama and recognizing the strong current of envy that runs through almost every story. This combined with the long history of creativity and commitment to exquisite representation resonated in a fourish way. I hadn’t recognized the nostalgia for the tragic past. It’s nice to hear too that 7s and 3s were more able to give way to sad emotions in this culture. I’ve never been there, but I so know where they are coming from.

Clementine Kim
Clementine Kim
3 years ago

This is a pretty old post, but though your views are insightful I don’t think Korea is an enneagram type 4 culture. From what I’ve observed as a Korean American, Korean culture values conformity a lot, particularly in following trends. It’s pretty stifling to walk on a typical street in the city because everyone seems to wear the same style of clothes, wear the same makeup, etc. It’s hardly an individualist culture. It doesn’t seem to value authenticity and self expression/creativity much either, as the education system is very rigid and demanding, forcing students to spend almost the entire day… Read more »