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South Korean Business Behavior


Cross-Cultural Business Behavior

A Guide for Global Management

The business culture of South Korea is similar in many respects to that of its neighbors Japan and China, but it also differs in important ways. The similarities include a strong relationship orientation, formality, hierarchical attitudes, emotionally reserved communication and expectations of punctuality. A significant difference is that Koreans can at times be more direct and more confrontational than Chinese and (especially) Japanese.

Initial contact: A formal introduction is crucial. Cold contact with

a company or person does not fit Korean expectations. The best introducer is a respected person or organization of high status known to both you and your Korean counterpart. Having the right connections is vital here.

Relationships: Getting to know your counterparts lays the groundwork for successful discussions. Maintaining smooth interpersonal relations is critical. Extensive small talk and socializing over drinks, dinner and other entertainment are good ways to do this.

Orientation to time: Korean companies value punctuality and adherence to schedules. However, traffic congestion may sometimes cause your local counterparts to arrive late for a meeting. Some smaller firms may take a more relaxed approach to punctuality.

Hierarchy, status and gender: Korean society is a steeply vertical

one, with a strict hierarchy. Remember to show respect to people

of high status, including the elderly and high-ranking company executives. Younger, subordinate individuals defer to older, higher-ranking persons.

Since few women have reached positions of authority in local companies, many Korean men are unaccustomed to dealing with females on the basis of equality in a business context. So women may face cultural obstacles when trying to do business with Koreans. Here are some steps for young business visitors (and businesswomen of any age) to take:

1. Arrange to be introduced (in person if possible) by the most senior male colleague available. In Korea, status is to a certain extent a transferable asset.

2. Following a proper introduction, present your business card which clearly shows your title and function, as well as any academic degrees and professional credentials. During the preliminary conversation, find occasion to refer to your rank, title, experience and professional qualifications (this should be done with modesty). Credentials and expertise confer respect in this culture.

3. Any colleague or associate accompanying you should likewise make reference to your position, making it clear who is in charge. If you are the senior negotiator on your side and your subordinate is addressed by Korean counterparts, you should be the one to reply. Your subordinate should turn towards you and wait for you to speak.

4. Learn the verbal, paraverbal and nonverbal ways of showing respect to your senior Korean counterparts. Respectful behavior on your part makes it easier for them to treat you with proper respect.

5. Pay attention to the paraverbal and nonverbal signals coming from the other side of the bargaining table. Western women tend to be more skilled than males in reading body language and facial expressions. This ability can be very useful with Koreans, who communicate many messages nonverbally. Koreans respect foreigners who take the time and effort to correctly interpret their body language.

As more women enter the managerial ranks of Korean companies, female business visitors will find their task less daunting. One sign of change in this regard was the establishment in the 1990s of an MBA program for women in South Korea. This male-dominated society seems to be gradually evolving in the direction of equality for the female half of the population.

Surface harmony: Koreans are sensitive to perceived slights. Even if your local counterparts occasionally employ confrontational tactics, stay cool, do not over-react. Strive to maintain surface harmony at all times, even under provocation. Although Korean negotiators tend to be more confrontational than most Chinese and Japanese negotiators, maintaining harmony helps keep the discussion on track.

Smooth interpersonal relations help you avoid disturbing a Korean’s kibun. This term is usually translated into English as “mood,” but it is more complicated than that. Disturbing a Korean’s kibun is likely to make coming to agreement more difficult. Veterans of negotiating with Koreans agree that staying calm rather than displaying irritation or anger is the best way to get things done.

Face: Face is related to self-respect, dignity and reputation. Causing loss of face, even if unintentionally, can disrupt a promising business negotiation. The best way to avoid causing loss of face is to use the proper forms of address with high-status persons and to observe other local customs and traditions.

To err is human, in Korea as elsewhere. If you commit a minor faux pas, a simple apology usually works. But if you should cause someone serious loss of face, the damage may be hard to repair. You may need to call on a high-status third party, such as the person or organization who introduced you, to step in and smooth things over.

Verbal communication: Koreans tend to be skilled at controlling

their emotions and hiding their true feelings. Whereas Germans, for

example, are well-known around the world for their directness in

communication, Koreans may resort to indirect, evasive language in

order to reduce the risk of offending others. For example, they rarely

utter a blunt “no.”

Koreans in turn expect their counterparts to avoid frank criticism or unnecessary brusqueness. Although Korean businessmen may at times use relatively direct language, they themselves are still sensitive to perceived slights.

Korean Paraverbal and Nonverbal Communication

Koreans rely on a sort of “sixth sense” to gauge the mood and reaction of other Koreans. This special sense involves reading paraverbal and nonverbal behavior. Your Korean counterparts may unconsciously expect foreigners to also understand the subtle nuances of their silent language.

Smiling: With Koreans, a smile often masks disapproval or even anger.

Silence: Koreans tend to be comfortable with silence. Expect long

pauses during meetings. Avoid interrupting the other party, since

this is considered rude; visitors should wait until their Korean counterpart has finished speaking before saying their piece.

Space behavior: On the street, Koreans jostle one another regularly, even when there seems to be plenty of space. In a business context, however, expect a medium-sized space bubble.

Touch behavior: Korea is a low-contact culture as regards foreigners. Expect very little touching.

Right hand: You normally use only your right hand when passing something to a Korean. Exception: To show special respect, use both hands when presenting an object to a person of high status (for example, a customer). You may also use the right hand, with the left hand supporting your right elbow.

Gaze behavior: Expect moderate eye contact. Most Koreans look into your eyes about half the time during a conversation.

Gestures: Body language is restrained, with few gestures. Avoid arm-waving and other abrupt, vigorous gestures.

Korean Business Protocol

Introductions: In Korea, introductions are not made casually. Arrange for a formal introduction to your business contact.

Dress code: Visitors should dress to show respect to their local counterparts. At the first meeting, a dark suit with white shirt and conservative tie is appropriate for men. Thereafter, you can be guided by the dress of your local partners. Women business visitors should likewise dress conservatively.

Meeting and greeting: Expect a bow and moderate eye contact, often followed by a handshake. Respond with a bow before exchanging name cards.

Forms of address: Korean names normally consist of the family name first, followed by two (occasionally one) given names. Refer to your counterpart by his family name, as in “Mr. Kim.” To show respect to senior people, substitute his title for the “Mister,” for example “President Kim” or “Director Park.”

Business cards: Exchanging name cards properly is important. Receive your counterpart’s card with both hands, present your own card with the right hand or with the right hand supported at the elbow by your left hand. Study the other party’s card, then put the card on the conference table when at a formal meeting, or in your card wallet.

Gift-giving and receiving: When meeting your counterpart at his office, consider bringing a gift if you have just arrived from abroad. If invited to a Korean’s home, always bring a present.

Appropriate business gifts include items typical of your own country or region, as well as quality cognac or whiskey. Present the gift with both hands. The recipient will probably put it aside and open it later. You should also receive a gift with both hands and open it later.

Wining and dining: Entertaining and being entertained is an essential part of building a close relationship with your Korean counterpart. For males, ritual drinking is a traditional way to get to know your counterpart. It is appropriate for men to drink heavily, even to get drunk. Alcohol often seems to dissolve the stiffness and formality encountered during business meetings. Drinking can be a good lubricant to a sticky negotiation.

Women are not expected to drink, and are definitely not expected to get drunk. Not joining in the male drinking ritual can represent a handicap for women doing business in Korea. Males who prefer not to drink alcohol can excuse themselves on grounds of illness or religious rules.

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