If you plan on doing business in South Korea or working with a company with a strong Korean influence, you will find the most success by observing Korean business principles. I’ve received Korean culture training, traveled to Korea on business a number of times, and have hosted Korean colleagues at my current employer. Personally, I enjoy the unique cultural aspects of working for a Korean company transplanted in the United States. Through cultural training and overseas business trip experience, I learned the common do’s and don’ts in South Korean business. Because of my understanding of South Korean business etiquette, I find that my Korean counterparts are quicker to open up in business conversations after seeing my respect for their culture.
If you start working for a Korean company or simply might have a quick meeting with one, here’s what you need to know about South Korean business etiquette … in 5 minutes.
Ways South Korean Culture Differs from Western Culture
If you were raised in Western cultures such as North America or Europe, then Korean work culture may seem foreign to you. Remember that these are simply different practices, not better or worse than your own cultural norms. Most South Korean business etiquette stems from the following four Korean cultural values:
- High context communication – Koreans tend to use fewer words and more implied context to get their meanings across. You may find that you need to “read between the lines” instead of getting direct feedback with Korean colleagues.
- Collectivist society – Koreans tend to do what is best for the greater community, rather than for themselves as individuals. This leads to the concept of “saving one’s face”, or “chemyeon-eul jikida”, which includes not criticizing associates when other people are present. For the sake of “keeping the peace”, Koreans often withhold their true opinions about people or business strategy.
- Hierarchy systems – Based on Confucian tradition, much of Korean social structure and language recognizes hierarchical relationships. Within families, government, and corporations the person with the highest title in the room is treated with the most honor and respect.
- Superstitious – Some modern Korean business practices stem from age-old superstitions, such as not using the unlucky number 4 in elevators. While superstitious beliefs may not be as prominent today, you should avoid bad luck practices to be polite.
Do’s and Don’ts in South Korean Business Etiquette
Try to learn the following South Korean business practices for the smoothest business transactions. Always do your best to operate out of a place of respect when interacting with South Koreans in business.
Greetings in South Korean Business
When you first meet up with Korean associates, expect to exchange handshakes and business cards. Gifts are also given to make good impressions or when participants travel far to meet. As part of the high context culture, your body language during greetings is important.
Do: Support your right arm at the elbow with your left hand during a handshake. If a handshake is withheld, nod your head or slightly bow at the upper body as another respectful greeting.
Don’t: Keep your left hand in your pocket during a handshake.
Do: Greet Koreans by their title and last name, such as “President Park”. Try to quickly learn the relative rank of the Koreans in the room.
Don’t: Assume a first-name or nickname basis until they tell you otherwise.
Exchanging business cards
Do: Present and receive business cards with two hands.
Don’t: Toss your business card, or any other item, onto the table in front of a person.
Do: Bring a wrapped gift of sweets, coffee, or tea from your country of origin.
Don’t: Open wrapped gifts that you receive in the presence of the gift-giver.
Meetings in South Korean Business
For the most part, South Korean colleagues remain even-tempered or even silent during meetings in order to “save face.” Additional conversation happens outside of the meeting room, either one-on-one or in relaxed social settings. Here are some ideal ways to handle yourself in meetings with South Koreans.
Entering the meeting
Do: Check if there is assigned boardroom seating based on title/rank.
Don’t: Be the first to sit down.
As a presenter
Do: Pass out any printed materials with two hands, starting with the highest ranking attendees.
Don’t: Write any names in red ink, either printed or digitally, as this is considered rude or even life-threatening by superstition.
Do: Take note of comments made so you can further reflect on their full, implied context.
Don’t: Expect much direct feedback during the meeting.
As a participant
Do: Listen attentively and save questions for the end of the presentation.
Don’t: Criticize the speakers during a group meeting. Instead, follow up one-on-one later to give more direct feedback.
Outings in South Korean Business
Many employees working in Korea treat co-workers like family and go out at least weekly together for food and drinks. In fact, many Koreans refer to company dinners fondly as “hweshik”, which literally translates to “dining together”. Here are a few ways to feel more comfortable when going out with South Korean businesspeople.
Do: Plan to go out for lunch or dinner with Korean associates to build rapport.
Don’t: Feel insulted if the Koreans choose a Korean restaurant over your suggestion for cuisine.
Do: Realize that it is ok for Korean employees to drink alcohol and even get drunk in front of their bosses.
Don’t: Pour your own glass or feel obligated to drink any alcohol poured for you.
Paying the bill
Do: Offer to expense the outing if you arranged the event and your company will reimburse.
Don’t: Reject the highest ranking Korean’s offer to take the tab instead.
South Korean Companies and Job Market
Now that you have these tips for South Korean business etiquette, you may wonder when they apply.
When doing business in South Korea with the major conglomerates, called “chaebol”, expect many of the hierarchical and traditional Korean formalities. The most recognizable and biggest Korean companies include Samsung, LG, SK Group, and Hyundai Motor Group.
Another way to learn Asian business etiquette is by working for a South Korean company, either domestically or abroad. A few in-demand jobs in Korea for foreigners include English teachers, editors, and translators. Plus, the best Korean companies to work for seek multicultural marketers, public relations specialists, and business analysts to grow business globally.
South Korean business etiquette follows the hierarchical and collectivist nature of the South Korean society at large. Expect to give and receive respect when doing business in South Korea, through body language and polite communication. When in doubt about appropriate Korean business practices, ask for clarification. Demonstrating awareness of the South Korean work culture will put you on good footing with associates.