Touch that builds love or closeness.
Jaymin and I had been together about three months when he took me to Sangsuri (상수리), a laid-back whiskey bar in the lively Hongdae area of Seoul.
This bar is great: Dark and slightly grubby wooden tables, an artsy clientele, a collection of glassware in all shapes and sizes, decent prices, and most importantly, a rather impressive selection of scotch whiskeys for Korea. We sat at the corner of a large communal table and Jaymin, who has a thing for goblets, envied the lady across the table drinking from a crystal one.
As the whiskey flowed, our neighbors changed. The lady with the goblet left, a strange and lonely American imposed his conversation on us, and then the crowd thinned out. I was sober enough, but Jaymin, who had chased each glass of whiskey with one of Max beer, became rather touchy-feely. I mean, you know, we were in loooove.
Soon there were only a few occupied tables scattered around the basement bar. Jaymin took a break from his lovering to visit the toilet. That’s when the Korean server came over and, looking nervous, addressed me.
“Please, no more skinship.”
So what is skinship?
Skinship is a portmanteau of the English words skin and friendship. It comes maybe through Japanese, where it appears in the 1971 edition of the Nihon Kokugo Daijiten, the Japanese equivalent of the Oxford English Dictionary (Word Spy 2003), meaning touch between mother and child.
It kept this meaning when it entered Korean, apparently. A 1990 Segye Ilbo piece, for example, says that the rapport between mother and child is possible through skinship (세계일보 1990).
The meaning expanded a bit during the early 90s: In 1993, a translated piece on AIDS patients in Brooklyn describes the importance of skinship, defined as “interaction through skin contact” (피부접촉을 통한 교류), for strengthening child AIDS patients’ human bonds (나카지마 1993).
By 1995 (김완섭), though, skinship had begun its shift towards its current usages. While there are still people who talk about skinship between mom and baby, apparently, I’d never heard it used that way until I started research for this post.
Instead, it’s overwhelmingly used to talk about romantic situations. Google skinship (in Korean) and the whole first page is mostly advice on how to start up skinship with a woman you like—an important part of ssŏm. While I guess heavy petting counts, skinship often refers to more casual touching, like holding your guy’s arm while you walk or “accidental” skin contact when handing something to your crush.
Skinship isn’t only for romance. In Korea, a lot of behavior that would be read as homosexual in English-speaking cultures is just friendly skinship (although I think my student was joking when he used that term for this kind of touch).
In the States, non-romantic touch is mostly restricted to greeting: handshakes or, for women, hugs. In Korea, my male army cadet students would hold hands during class, or rest a hand on a friend’s thigh; other adult male students would massage each other’s shoulders during break time. Women frequently hold hands walking down the street, which, Yi Ki-ae noted back in 1995, leads Japanese (and other) visitors to joke, “Are there really this many lesbians in Korea?” (oh, 90s humor…)
This is borne out in at least one study, which found that Japanese exchange students in Korea, while okay with handshakes, felt awkward or uncomfortable when Koreans they met at school held their hands, grabbed their arms, or touched their shoulders—all perfectly normal behavior between close friends or classmates in Korea (가메이 2013).
A lot of scholarship (especially in English) on touch in Korea says Korea is a touch-averse culture, that people just don’t touch each other in public. This is true in more formal situations or with people who are older, but I haven’t found it to be the case at all in many situations (there is so much subway PDA), so I was glad to find at least one study that fit my experience: Skinship is really important in Korean groups and relationships!
A note on spelling and romanization: McCune-Reischauer’s system would romanize 스킨십 as sŭk’insip; revised romanization would have it as seukinsip (I think). I prefer to use English spellings for English-derived words in this blog because it makes it easier for most people to read. Also, this word is sometimes spelled 스킨쉽 in han’gŭl.
가메이 미도리 (2013). “한국인과 재한 일본인 유학생 간의 의사소통 걸림돌에 관한 고찰 – 호칭어 사용과 인사를 중심으로” (A Study on Obstacles of the Communication between Korean and Japanese Students in Korea – Focused on ‘address form’ and ‘greetings’). 어문론집 (The Journal of Language and Literature), 54, 137-153.
김완섭 (1995). “김완섭이 본 사이버느페이스 / PC통신은 무정부상태.” 경향신문. 1995년5월29일. KINDS. 2016년8월6일.
나카지마 미치 (1993). “AIDS환자에 대한 ‘논총.'” 박소형 정리. 세계일보. 1993년2월10일. KINDS. 2016년8월6일.
세계일보 (1990). “선물의 질량.” 세계일보. 1990년5월5일. KINDS. 2016년8월6일.
오광호 (1993). “천호동 화평교회 이재욱목사/사도행전 3:1∼10.” 국민일보. 1993년9월18일. KINDS. 2016년8월6일.
Yi Ki-ae (이기애). “신체접촉보다 ‘사이’ 유지(내가 본 일본·일본인:21).” 한겨레. 1995년8월22일. KINDS. 2016년8월6일.