Forget the TED Talks. Instead, use this 16-second commercial for a great introduction to Korean gender roles.
By Girls’ Generation’s for Shinhan Card, it’s completely innocuous at first viewing. Take a second and third look though, and it’s extraordinary in how much it reveals:
First, because of the obvious: those legs. Then, because my students barely seemed to notice them when I asked what they thought of the commercial, let alone considered objectifying only the women to be problematic. Probably, because they’re already used to ubiquitous female “assistants” (doumi;도우미) and scantily-clad “narrator models” (나레이터 머델) being used to sell and promote all manner of products, services, and causes. And girl-groups, effectively, are performing very much the same roles.
Also, that indifference was probably because Girls’ Generation are notorious for wearing hot pants or jeans that are several sizes too small. Indeed, entertainment companies deliberately emphasize girl-group members’ legs to make K-pop more sexually-appealing in conservative East Asian markets, where people generally share Koreans’ taboos about breast exposure. So, it may seem disingenuous to single out this commercial in that regard.
But I’m not—I’m singling it out for what the differences between the men and the women reveal. Because my students would surely have noticed more if the men had also been wearing short-shorts, with the well-muscled legs to pull them off. Or, with more male-specific revealing costumes that showed off their abs.
With just women doing silly dances in revealing clothes though? That’s so normal in advertising that most people don’t think twice about it. See what I mean by looking at these images from A Web Essay on the Male Gaze, Fashion Advertising, and the Pose below. What are your gut reactions to them?
(“Most viewers find the images of the men odd or laughable. But the images of the women seem charming and attractive…Why should it seem funny to see a picture of adult men striking a pose when the same pose seems normal or charming to us in pictures of adult women?”)
Obviously, this speaks to gender role portrayals in the media worldwide, not just that of Korea. But, with the latter’s tendency towards cuteness and aegyo, it does seem quite extreme here. And, as if to rub that in, in this particular commercial the text and the song also emphasize that the women are very much just for decoration:
First, the text in blue box: “끝없이 ‘고객만족’을 생각하는 카드”.
“The card that unceasingly thinks about customer satisfaction”.
Then what the men are saying while that is visible: “생각, 생각, 생각, 생각”.
“Think, think, think, think.”
Next Girls’ Generation, dancing with their shoulders while sitting on a bench: “어떡하면, 원하는걸, 다 이뤄줄수 있으까?”.
“How shall [the card] achieve everything [the customer] wishes?”.
(Source, above and below: Paranzui)
Then the men again, while the girls are do their leggy dance, then stand in a line with the men and supposedly sing along with them (but we only hear the men’s voices): “손잡고 힘을 모아 다 함께 생각 생각”.
“Let’s cooperate [with the customer] and collect our energy together and think about all that”.
Finally in the voiceover, with the men sitting in contemplative poses and the girls standing behind them clapping : “카드의 길을 생각하다”.
“What is a card’s purpose? Let’s think about that”.
With this text in the blue box above them: “끝없는 제휴혜택으로 더 큰 고객만족을”.
“The card that can be used anywhere in order to increase customer satisfaction!”.
Easy to miss on a single viewing, it emerges that it is only the men that do the thinking in this commercial, and by default, for the bank also. Yes, really: even when they all say “How shall [the card] achieve everything [the customer] wishes?,” if you look closely at roughly 0:08 into the commercial when the girls actually finish saying that (see far above), they clearly turn to the men for an answer. Rest assured then, that if you invest your money in this bank, that it will be in the hands of smart people that will take your concerns very seriously. Those people just won’t be women, that’s all.
Exaggeration? Hardly. Consider the facts: according to a recent report in the Korea Times, there are no female CEOs in the entire financial industry here; there are only 2 women out of a total of 220 team managers in the Financial Supervisory Service (and no executives); there are no women with either position in the Bank of Korea. Moreover, one anonymous (male) government official in finance argued that this is somehow justified by “the country’s financial bureaucrats [having] been overwhelmed with too “serious tasks” to pay attention to gender equality” (as in ever since the early 1960’s, not just the recent crisis), and it’s telling that even Rep. Lee Sung-nam (이성남) of the Democratic Party, a woman and former worker at the FSS, feels that women’s weak point in finance is their “competitive edge.”
Granted, given that Korea has one of the lowest women’s workforce participation rates in the OECD, and that Korea has a surprisingly low “Gender Empowerment Measure” relative to its level of development, which is based on “factors such as the number of female legislators, the percentage of women in senior official and managerial positions, the percentage of women in professional and technical positions, and the income differential between men and women,” then it might seem unfair to single out the financial sector for criticism in this regard. But then if I’d wanted to highlight the lack of women there in particular, then I couldn’t have selected a better commercial to illustrate why that might be so.
Nor for explaining “function ranking” either, a common sexist motif in advertisements. A quick summary (source):
Activities can also be expressive and symbolic—who is shown doing what in the image? For example which gender is most likely to shown caring for children? Very commonly when persons in the image have functions, these functions are ranked, with the male carrying out the senior functions, the female the junior functions. Men act, and women help men act. Males are more likely to be shown in the executive or leadership role, with females in the supportive, assistant, or decorative accessory role.
That and other motifs were first outlined by the late sociologist Erving Goffman in his 1979 work Gender Advertisements, and which is still very much the framework by which sociologists study how gender roles are perpetuated in advertising. Let me leave you with one more observation from it (see the sidebar for many more examinations of Korean advertisements using his framework), then another example from Korean banking:
In our society where a man and a woman collaborate face to face in an undertaking, the man—it would seem—is likely to perform the executive role, providing only that one can be fashioned. This arrangement seems widely represented in advertisements, in part, no doubt, to facilitate interpretability at a glance (p.32).
As indeed is the case with this advertisement for a bank I came across last November:
Technically, the man is a customer, the women clerks (the text reads: “The customer’s best life partner, with Busan bank”). It is very telling though, how difficult it is to imagine an ad with the sexes reversed—let alone find an example in real life.
Update: For comparison, see here for a Shinhan Card commercial with just the men.
(For all posts in the “Korean Sociological Images” series, see here)
37 thoughts on “Korean Sociological Image #19: Gee, Gee, Gee…Girls’ Generations’ Latest Ad Speaks Volumes About Korean Gender Roles”
(James, December 2015: Although the gist is the same, this post has been completely rewritten since all these comments were made, which may mean some no longer make sense. Sorry!)
You say: “Granted, given that Korea has one of the lowest women’s workforce participation rates in the OECD, and that Korea has a surprisingly low “Gender Empowerment Measure” relative to its level of development, and which is based on “factors such as the number of female legislators, the percentage of women in senior official and managerial positions, the percentage of women in professional and technical positions, and the income differential between men and women,” then it might seem unfair to single out the financial sector for criticism in this regard. But then if I’d wanted to highlight the lack of women in that in particular, then I couldn’t have selected a better commercial to illustrate why that might be so.”
Yes! This is because based on the grand universal moral valuations of God or Erving Goffman or any other sociological superstar, empowerment MEANS having a good job. As the Pet Shop Boys sang in “What Have I Done To Deserve This?”: “You always wanted a lover, I only wanted a job.”
Empowerment means having the means and wherewithal to choose whether or not one has a job, and what kinds of jobs are available to you. James is absolutely right when he points out the limits on women’s empowerment in Korea by pointing to the way the job market is structured to exclude and restrict women. Imagery like this (and I agree strongly with this analysis ~ I would also like to point out that not only are the costumes risque, the men get to stay wholly and professionally clothes, and aren’t dangled about to kick their legs in the air, etc.) subtly reinforces what many Koreans already know and understand, no matter how subconciously, that women are to be used for decorative purposes, for consumer purposes, but not for decision-making or high positions.
Thanks GG, and that’s pretty much what I was going to say myself.
GG says: “.. would also like to point out that not only are the costumes risque, the men get to stay wholly and professionally clothes, and aren’t dangled about to kick their legs in the air, etc.) subtly reinforces what many Koreans already know and understand, no matter how subconciously, that women are to be used for decorative purposes, for consumer purposes, but not for decision-making or high positions.”
Right, because working in a corporation is more powerful than activities undertaken outside of the office, correct? So your analysis is logically consistent with what you perceive to be valuable and important work. Not being all post-modern.. just sayin’..
Even though you’re mostly just trying to be provocative, I’ll still attempt to respond to why exactly the imagery here is a problem.
Both Girls Generation AND the male choir here are being represented as bank workers, or at least representatives of the bank. It’s not like the women are running around easy and free and happy while the men are corporate slaves. There *should* therefore be some equality in how they are portrayed, BUT the men are clothed, placed in forward and more assertive stances than the women, and are given the position of answering queries. The women pose the questions, are held by the men as they dance, shown as submissive and dependant, and on top of it all are not accoded equality in dress. So it’s not a free agent/office slave comparison. It’s “man as active/knowing/responsible” vs. women as “decorative/passive/questioning” In other words, yeah, inequality.
Thanks GG, and again I concur, but you’re more forgiving then I would have been.
Right said Fred, trying to provoke discussion is all well and good, but not doing so by placing words in people’s mouths, which is all you seem to have done so far.
Granted, in the paragraph of mine you quote, I should have said that the Gender Empowerment Measure is based on both the factors I mention and factors such as levels of education, literacy, life expectancy, maternity deaths, and so on, but even with the omission it’s still a bit of a leap to claim that I, Erving Goffman, and…God(?) equate empowerment only with having a job. That you do so makes it obvious that you neither followed the links about Goffman nor the United Nations Development Programme behind the G.E.M, and yet somehow still you feel fit to cast judgment on them.
Next GG didn’t say “working in a corporation is more powerful than activities undertaken outside of an office” either, so you mention that because…? If you firmly believe that she does think that though, then please feel free to convince us, but make sure to do so before you start attacking that perceived opinion. We’ve already established that you’re happy to critique individuals and institutions despite knowing nothing about them, so I’ll need rather more than just your word for it that person A has opinion B I’m afraid.
If you continue to start your comments by claiming that other commenters stated an opinion which clearly they didn’t, but lambasting them on the basis of having that opinion nevertheless, then I have no hesitation in deleting them. I won’t give a second warning: I’ve already wasted enough time on this.
Well I apologize if it was perceived I was putting words into another person’s mouth (in this case GG). However, my “reading” of the commentary here was to try to uncover the underlying values and assumptions of what is being claimed. Ultimately all that we have here – particularly of cultural analysis – is a reading with whatever value system we bring to the table. Is there complete objectivity? (This is why I joke about being all post-modern.)
My subjective – and it can only ever be subjective imho – reading of this analysis is that there are some questions that need to be addressed before the symbolic elements can be deconstructed:
1. Is the corporate client and advertising agency for the ad rational? Would they advertise something offensive and risk losing market share?
2. What are the prescriptions for fair division in a society of agents with very different preferences?
3. How does one know this ad isn’t welfare improving for _most_ agents in this society?
4. What percentage of society X being analysed is up in arms over this kind of advertising? Is this a tyranny of the majority?
5. Is it possible that this advertisement is being misunderstood, say from original positions of perceived power relations?
James has already made a very solid and specific argument relating to this ad. If you’d like to address that . . .well, I would like to hear your actual opinion then of what this ad is saying, how it utilizes the imagery here to do so, and what that use actually means. James has already talked about the place of women and banking and men in this ad, so it’s now up to you to make a counter-argument if you feel his aren’t correct. Asking random questions that have nothing to do with the argument being made is not productive. So, either make a counter-argument or explain how on earth your questions are relevant and propose answers. Because right now, it doesn’t look like you have any real intellectual curiosity in the matter at hand.
Hello Gomushin Girl,
I don’t believe these to be random questions. What I am getting at is the methodology behind the analysis. As with any kind of social scientific inquiry, we need to be aware of the confirmation bias. What is brought to the table determines the analysis, and hinders attempts at uncovering objective truth out there.
I am questioning the entire enterprise of analyzing culture, or the grand narrative. But that’s just my humble opinion. So why do I keep coming back?
That’s what I wonder . . . why *do* you keep coming back?
This is the kind of thing that I’m getting at, vis-a-vis analyzing these ads:
if that’s what you’re getting at, put your money where your mouth is and offer up your own “local narrative” in explanation. I can’t wait to hear it.
Well, here is one possible meta-narrative on the grand narrative: It is easier to analyze and critique something if we impose a certain system of thought or categorization which makes it easier to say anything at all.
Recipe or Algorithm:
1. Find advertisement with pretty celebrity females and dressed up men with different clothing to flesh ratios.
2. Reference the work of a famous sociologist and the United Nations to demonstrate standards of universalism.
3. State what’s wrong.
4. Collect comments from fellow readers.
So this is what I suggest as I don’t believe in objectivity. Try starting from the premise that the value system brought to the table is in fact:
a) Not universal
b) Inference from noisy signals (such as interpreting symbolism in advertising) is wholly dependent on what a group of thinkers thought before – i.e. consider that the institution of though is path dependent, or get really meta and consider the sociology of sociology
c) State what is morally right FIRST, then do the analysis. This reversal of argumentation is a useful deconstructive technique that can expose hidden assumptions.
Ah hah I am so clever so as to avoid your question head on, or am I? What are we doing when we are critiquing a world that far more messier than is possible to understand. We are all black swans.
For some reason, I can’t reply to your comment below, but let me sum up what I think you mean:
“I can’t bring anything substantive or relavent to what you guys are talking about, but I want to argue with you anyway.”
“I can’t bring anything substantive or relavent to what you guys are talking about, but I want to argue with you anyway.”
Is this true? How does one determine whether it is substantive or relevant? Are methodological concerns irrelevant? Am I arguing for argument’s sake? What about this blog entry, this series of responses, or even the existence of the blog itself? Substantive? Relevant?
Oh dear God, we’ve got a would-be amateur philosopher on our hands . . . congratulations RSF, you’ve now thoroughly convinced me never to bother replying to you again, since rational argument is not part of your repertoire.
I did not notice the women looking at the men for answers until you pointed it out. They both use the fist on the chin to represent thought, or so it seems to me. The men doing so is more obvious but the women do it as well. Just for arguments sake you could say the tux that the men are wearing are similar in my mind to a butler’s tux with the penguin tail’s or whatever they are called.
What does the “girls dreams come true” poster say? I am highly offended by the second girl on the right and her baggy, suspender, blue jean shorts. Maybe she is to blame for the high and tight short fad.
(James, December 2015: This was the poster referred to, since removed.)
Sorry for taking so long to reply (and to everyone else below as well): bad cold this week.
I’ll grant that both the men and the women use the fist on the chin gesture to represent thought, and for that reason perhaps the difference in the ways the men and women are presented in the commercial isn’t as stark as I make out in the text.
But they hardly look like they’re thinking very deeply (in fact most of my students thought they were merely cute), and before and after that scene it’s only the men that are thinking while the women show us their legs, or clap the serious-looking men. So while you’re not wrong about the gesture, it definitely still portrays the men and women very differently overall.
really how are clothes making you offended. And you do realize they don’t pick out their own clothes for photo shoots right. or maybe you need to do a little more research.
I was always a little disturbed to see women in offices and banks wearing uniforms while their male colleagues holding the same or similar positions were not. I was really disturbed when some male Yonsei University students informed me that a woman classmate had taken a job at a local bank branch. A US Ivy graduate of either gender would not put his or her elite education to use as a clerk at a small local bank branch. “But working at a bank is a good job in Korea,” protested the male students. “Good job for a woman,” I retorted. They looked at me dumbfounded. This conversation took place in the mid-90s when Seoul Subway was still hiring female and elderly scabs to replace young and middle-aged male ticket vendors during labor strikes. Could never get a Korean to explain to me why men were better suited to taking money and handing out tickets. Thankfully, Korea has made great strides in gender equality in the workplace over the last ten years.
Actually, banking was the number one choice of many of my university friends here of either gender ~ it’s considered just as stable as a public sector job, and banks pay fairly well. Also, depending on department, you may not have to work terribly late. One friend got a job and was estatic that he got to leave work at 7 almost every day. His friends at major companies like Samsung all envied him – their pay was not much higher than his, but they usually left work around 11 or later at night. Because of the structure of the industry here, banking is considered both an elite and a good place to work.
Regarding ShinHan bank specfically, I had a friend who is a freelancer that did some work for them. They have been trying to push a very contemporary, progressive image in contrast to their conservative competitors, but my friend (a women, incidentally) reported that their corporate offices were as old-school Korean corporate as you can get. No other women were present except the office girls serving coffee.
Based on that anecdote, your analysis of the advertisement pretty much nails the corporate culture generally.
Thanks for passing that on, although after reading Marilyn’s comment below, I may have been too hasty in judging Shinhan Bank. See my reply to that for why and how I plan to check!
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Interesting comments about banking, I didn’t know it was so well-regarded.
James, I know that you like Girls Generation (and I don’t, so sorry if I’m blinded by that) but isn’t choosing them in the first place not exactly promoting the status of women? I don’t know a whole lot about them, but I don’t get the impression that their image is one of smart, capable, or powerful women. It seems to be more cutesy, harmless, and doll-like. I am not surprised that the bank portrayed them the way it did, because if I got the sense they were running MY bank I would be quite nervous.
Oh, they’re pretty certainly, but that’s all. And I was really struck by this commercial the instant I saw it, and would have covered it regardless of which women were in it.
But still, the choice is not irrelevant, so you’ve definitely got a point there. Given their reputation then, if you’re going to use Girls’ Generation in a commercial, then you’re going to portray them as cutesy, harmless and doll-like; on a similar note, I was going to mention (but didn’t) that a commercial without them in mini-shorts might have gotten far more attention. And considering that that’s the image that they (or rather their company) choose to project for themselves then it itself there’s nothing wrong with a commercial with them acting in character so to speak. It becomes more of an issue though, if that’s the only image of women projected in commercials, regardless of the groups, celebrities and models featured.
Mu impression is that images of women comparable to the men in this commercial are somewhat lacking in the Korean media overall. I realize that that’s a bit of a generalization though, so, following on from JohnB’s comment, I’m going to start looking at Shinhan Bank’s old commercials to see if the image of women presented in this commercial is countered by more positive ones earlier. I’ll post and discuss what i find either as an update to this post or (more likely) a new post next week.
yeah so Korean men are kind of obsessed with hypersexualized young girls, especially when they are in servile roles. What else is new?! I feel like you blog about this all the time. About the gender inequality and how women are objectified in the disturbingly conservative yet lolita-centric korean pop culture scene.
I think maybe you should stop blogging about how mad you are that korean entertainment is forcing you to delve into your inner pervert to find these pre-pubescent-looking underage minors attractive.
Also, maybe you haven’t been in the states in a while, but American teens DEFINITELY wear tighter jeans to class than anything SNSD wears in a music video.
I get that you’re angsty about not being able to bang them, but no one actually believes that you (as a white male living in Korea and therefore destined to always be cast as the “creepy other,” whether or not you are willing to accept this) have only their integrity as subversively subjugated females in mind, so really I think it’s time to find a new topic.
Also, what do you even know about the joys of being an empowered woman? There are lots of empowered women who are constantly harangued by a society that secretly (or not so secretly, if you look at the discrepancy in pay with her male counterpart) still believes she is inferior and therefore requires her to be constantly on the defensive mode and therefore is labeled a bitch (when a male in her position would be labeled as a driven go-getter). [I.e. Hillary Clinton. She never had a chance. I think we should all try to be as real as possible about this.]
Those rich wives in Apgujung don’t actually have it that bad, believe it or not. I mean yes, their lives are basically pointless and they are kind of a waste of ATP, but I think you should stop acting like you have any of their feelings/happiness/dignity in mind. I’m pretty sure these women, though living vain and often wasted lives, are a lot happier than those empowered females you speak so highly of, who spend most of their time trying to fight a societal structure that only feigns sympathy for them when they secretly want those manicures and pedicures and shoe-shopping. Many of these rich wives actually enjoy acting like they’re twelve and having everything (money, food, clothing, jewelry) at their beck and call. They enjoy being pampered by their husbands who fancy their whims because they legitimately believe that their wives are dumber than they are (which is likely a myth, since the woman has managed to whip him to that degree). They enjoy not having to work but having all of the benefits of status and money that a career woman in New York who works a 100-hour week on top of trying to fit in some family time on the side does.
Yes, it’s disturbing that the perverse male minds behind the Korean entertainment business keep throwing at us the legs of barely legal teens, but seriously, why do you even care? If you really cared, maybe you should be talking to SM Entertainment, rather than a bunch of netizen droids who are clearly enraptured by your constant rehashing of the exact same story simply because reading these stories helps to assuage that guilt in being victim to the very marketing ploys they would like to protest.
Guilty as charged. Did you ever, perchance, check the summary of my blog in the top-right corner of the page?
For someone who implies that you read the blog often (“I feel like you blog about this all the time”), you demonstrate precious little evidence of that. I challenge you to find anywhere on this blog that I’ve said anything remotely like that.
Well I’m not actually from America, but then we’ve already established that what is actually on my blog has little relevance to your comment. And how exactly is what American teens wear to class relevant here?
Well if no-one would believe me, good job that I’ve never actually said anything like that, eh? Of course I’d like to bang them.
I dare say a lot more than you actually. And thanks so much for bringing up Hillary Clinton: shame on me for not mentioning her in my post about…Korean advertising.
What rich wives in Apgujung? Oh sorry, I forgot: your little spiel has nothing whatsoever to do with this post.
Wait…you feel that I blog about the subject all the time, which presumably means that you read the blog often. So please help me understand: would you be one of those netizen droids enraptured by my blog, or not? What’s the difference?
Seriously, whoever you are, I had no hesitation in banning you from further commenting the instant you complained about the subjects I write about, which as I recall was in line 2. After all, if you don’t like them so much, then I’m probably doing you a favor…
that’s not so much an argument as something typed during a syncopial episode. Full of random toss-ins (rich wives in Apgujeong, Hillary Clinton’s ‘experience’), insane assumptions (why you blog and for whom), and logical inconsistencies (Sannn doesn’t know why you care, but Sann also believes you don’t).
Sannn, I teach an excellent Academic Writing course – contact me and we can begin to address the worst of your writing problems..
That’s how much I care!
just stumbled on this website, i think you’re absolutely mahhvelous for starting such a thing.. we desperately need more people addressing the topic of gender/sexuality in korea GAH! PLEASE!
haven’t been able to read through every blog, but i noticed you use a lot of youth pop groups as references i.e. snsd
funny thing since i recently got hooked on them, and the like i.e. f(x) or brown eyed girls, and it’s amazing to me how addictive yet repulsive SM tactics are in selling their images and sounds.. even more of a funny thing? i initially got into them because i was fascinated by the face of an attractive korean, not something i see often in the american media, and i felt (hear this) empowered? proud? happy? for seeing these representations and thinking, “see, my blood runs pretty in me” hah! interestingg… then you crave for more
anywhos, all that’s to stay, i commend your valiant efforts in tackling this issue when i feel as if koreans/koreanamerican don’t even deal adequately with it,
and if you don’t mind, do you have a background in sociology? i’m simply curious as to how you got into this whole schebam… and what does your korean wife think about it?? haha.. okay.
Thanks, and technically no: my undergraduate majors were history and political studies. But I’ve studied a great deal of sociology since graduating – at least comparable to having done an undergraduate degree in it in my own opinion, and probably much more – and indeed I’ll be starting a sociology cum media studies MA in a few months.
Girl groups are certainly attractive, and I suppose I’ll always be the butt of jokes for studying them, but the interest is more in them being so young and yet being made to perform in the ways they do, and how Korean society reacts to that. They’re also so popular that they’re kind of difficult to avoid talking about too, although on the plus side that means that posts on them tend to be quite popular.
This article caught my eye when it was linked on the mainpage’s sidebar and I have to say that this write-up is marvelous.
We need more people like you analysing concepts like gender (in)equality in terms of Korean entertainment, especially when it’s glossed over and even gobbled up by the mass media. Korean entertainment, and idol groups in general, are definitely prime examples of gender inequality. (Male idol groups are praised for being ‘beastly’ when showing rippling six pack abs, while female idol groups are criticised for being ‘slutty’ when wearing mini-shorts.) It’s definitely not new to those who have an interest in Korean culture, but you’ve certainly gone deeper in the subject matter than any Korean news article I’ve read.
PS. I was never a Girls’ Generation fan, but you’ve just piqued my interest in them with this post. I checked out the links you posted with regards to their penchant for wearing mini-shorts, but the content doesn’t seem to be very relevant to this analysis. In fact, the posts are more like gossip, considering that in the post about ‘jeans that are several sizes too small’, the pictures posted are nowhere near to what the writer describes. ‘Sausage legs’? They’ve not seen size 10 women squeezing into size 4 jeans, then.
Thanks for your comment, and the compliments about my blog! Sorry, that you didn’t like the link about the mini-shorts though, but I didn’t know what else I could offer for more information about them?
i really really want to know about korean culture.would you mind to share all your mind about it to me.