One of the best ways to take the pulse of the national mood in Korea is to chat with a taxi driver. Many have a sharp eye because they spend their days seeing and hearing what is going on in a society.
-- Robert J. Fouser
Korean taxi drivers are great conversation partners if you’re learning Korean. You might get mixed results when you’re talking to strangers in Korea, but Korean taxi drivers are pretty close bets for having great conversations... What better way to practice your Korean with some bored Korean cabbie who’s been stuck in a car all day?
Have you ever had a conversation with a Korean taxi driver? More often than not, you don't even need to start the conversation.
If you speak an adequate amount of Korean, that will come across when you tell him where you want to go - particularly if you have perfect pronunciation.
6 Things to AVOID if you want to have a conversation
- Don't leave your headphones in - even if your music if off, leaving your headphones in indicates a desire to keep to yourself.
- Don't play smartphone games or check Facebook.
- Don't talk on the phone.
- Don't read.
- Don't eat.
- Don't just stare blankly out the window.
6 Things to DO if you want to have a conversation
- Tell the driver exactly where you want to go with grammatically perfect Korean (i.e. practice).
- Politely ask him how long it will take to get there - this extra Korean sentence indicates 1) that you know enough Korean to have a simple dialogue and 2) that you are interested in having at least a short dialogue.
- Look attentive and available for conversation.
- Look interested. If the driver speaks to you, immediately sit up straight and respond as best you can.
- If he says something you don't understand, focus on the word you don't know and repeat it back to him. Usually he'll do his best to explain it so that you understand.
- Follow up his questions with your own (If he asks, "Where are you from?" You can ask "Where's your hometown (고향)?" If he asks about your family, ask about his, etc. But, probably still avoid talking about his paycheck if possible - even if he asks about yours.)
6 appropriate topics to START a conversation
- Ask a question about the destination he's taking you to (or make a comment about it).
- Ask a question about the city you're in or Korea in general (even if you already know the answer, the goal is conversation NOT knowledge).
- Try to pick up on something from the radio (or his in-car TV set) - the music, the talk, etc. Comment on that or ask a question about it. (I usually ask who the singer/band is if I hear a song I like.)
- Pay attention to the news the night before and ask a question about that.
- Ask for his recommendation of the best... something (restaurant, movie theater, etc.) ("Please recommend" = "좋은 [noun]을/를 추천해주세요."
- Address him/her as 기사님 (a respectful term for "driver") and ask a question. (The respectful term you use will likely prompt a favorable response.)
6 topics it's probably best to AVOID
- Very personal, intimate details of your/his private life (like boyfriends, girlfriends) - although family-related topics aren't terrible ("Are you married? Do you have children?" etc)
- His paycheck. Most taxi drivers like ask foreigners how much money they make. Generally, hagwon teachers are probably on equal or better footing than cab drivers when it comes to paychecks. So, it's best not to repeat his "How much do you make?" question back to him.
- Politics and religion (unless you're an Advanced Korean speaker and don't mind listening to a guy get on his soapbox).
- Don't talk about his bad driving - though acknowledging your agreement when he cuts off or yells at other drivers doesn't hurt.
- Don't talk about something that's totally irrelevant to him - like your favorite video game or Western TV show (but if you know some popular Korean shows it's probably OK to ask if he watched last night's episode).
- Don't complain about Korea to him in Korean. If you have complaints, keep them to yourself until you exit the car.
6 reasons WHY it's a good idea to talk to taxi drivers
- Taxi drivers are incredibly knowledgable despite the stereotype that the job requires no formal education.
- They are aware of and in tune with the "national pulse" (or at least the "provincial pulse" - judging from the previous election in which this province voted about 90% against the elected President).
- They are the most current on current events.
- They know all the best, most authentic, not-in-any-tourist-guidebook locations (and shortcuts around town, and public transportation hints).
- In some cases, it allows them to slow down and drive better when they see that you're not in a huge hurry.
- 10 minutes is just too long a time to go with silence between two people.
The 6 best bits of Korean to KNOW
- 직진 = straight
- 왼쪽 (좌회전) = left
- 오른쪽 (우회전) = right
- 뒤쪽 = back
- 유턴 = U-turn
- 맞은 편 = opposite side
- 여기요 = Here please
- 저기요 = There please
- 삼거리 = 3-way intersection
- 사거리 = 4-way intersection
- 신호등 = traffic light
- 다음 = next
- 코너 = corner
- 길 = street/road
- 빨리 = fast
- 서둘러 주세요 = please hurry up
- 나는(지금) 늦었어요 = I'm late (it's late)
- 천천히 = slow
- 조금 = a little bit
- 타다 = ride/get on
- 해 주세요 = please do
- 가 주세요 = please go (or Destination로 가 주세요)
- 세워 주세요 = please stop
- 내려 주세요 = please let me off
5. The car:
- 빈차 = empty car (available)
- 예약 = reserved
- 개인 = privately owned
- 요금 = fare
- 미터기 = meter
- 콜택시 = "call taxi"
6. Talking with the driver:
- 기사님 = driver (아저씨 = middle-aged man, 아줌마 = middle-aged woman - 기사님 = more polite)
- 목적 = destination
- 얼마나 걸려요? = How long will it take?
- 얼마 예요? = How much is it?
Today's Challenge is to get in a conversation with a taxi driver.
#27: Grab a taxi and get in a conversation with the driver. Record it or write up a paraphrase later.
Here are some more resources for today's Challenge:
- Why you should call the driver 기사님 (YouTube)
- The basics of taking a taxi (YouTube)
- How to give taxi directions (YouTube)
- How to ride a taxi in Seoul like a local (Seoulistic.com)
- A basic taxi conversation (WikiBooks)
- A more in-depth conversation (KoreaTimes.com English)
- About starting conversations with strangers in Korea (blog)
- A discussion about taxis entirely in Korean (TTMIK Iyagi)
- Taxi tips (GalbiJim)
- How to make conversations with a cab driver (WikiHow)
What kinds of interesting conversations have you had with cab drivers? I've discussed North Korea and nuclear weapons, typhoons, sports and music (among other things).