Korean Culture: Business Etiquette

by on September 11th, 2010
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Whether you are doing to Korea on a short-term business trip or plan on working there, knowing the business etiquette of the culture will greatly help in your experience. After living and teaching in South Korea for a few months, here are some tips of etiquette in the workplace that I think are vital for success.

When doing business in Korea, there are many key values that lay the foundation to the country’s business etiquette. Some of these values include: loyalty, endurance, respect for authority, certainty and structure, conformity, collectivity and teamwork, and obedience.

With this values in mind, Koreans in general like to do business with those who they have a personal connection with. Koreans enjoy having informal social gatherings with co-workers. These gathers can often involve a considerable amount of eating and drinking. Koreans do this in order to develop relationships and develop a sense of trust and mutual respect with you. They will ask many questions and some may seem a bit “personal” in nature to you. Some more “personal” questions that I have been asked include questions of my religion and family information. You should not take offense to this, as they are simply trying to learn about you and not pry into your business, as some may interpret.

In all business situations, be sure to answer the questions directly and concisely. In Korean culture, “less is more” is the theme in communication.

However, despite the cultural trends of relationships and loyalty, you may discover the hidden personal stories that are remained hidden or “secret” from the workplace. I have learned this interacting with some Korean co-teachers, as they would disclose personal information to me that they wanted to keep hidden from Korean co-workers. The reason for this is because certain aspects of fellow Koreans lives may be looked down upon in the culture, so they will keep aspects hidden from co-workers. A few that I experienced involved some keeping secret about a separation from their spouse. The reason they felt they needed to keep this secret is because divorce is greatly looked down upon in Korean culture.

Koreans look to contracts and other legal documents as memorandums of understanding. Unlike the very detailed contracts of western cultures, Koreans see contracts as loosely structured statements that broadly defines an agreement and leaves room for flexibility and changes as needed. This difference in view of contracts between the two cultures can sometimes cause issues.

I have seen that in Korean many schools, particularly at the private schools called Hagwons, will attempt to “share” teachers in order to capitalize their investment. Because the contract states a certain amount of hours for a certain pay, they may attempt to “share” you without any extra pay. However, this is not something to be discouraged about but rather something to understand about their cultural view.

In any conflicts regarding the contract, be sure to be open, honest about your feelings (very important), direct, clear, supportive, and understanding in your statements. Remember that Koreans are community-focused, so their underlying motive is to maintain peace (in most cases).

Other business etiquette techniques foreigners should keep in mind include:

Avoid saying “no” directly. Instead, say “maybe” and indicate a disagreement or reluctance.
Talk slow and break up your speech with pauses. This helps to allow room for translation.
Always present business cards with both hands. Never write on the business card in the giver’s presence.
Send proposals and meeting agendas ahead of time so that your colleagues can review.
During a business meeting, acknowledge the person of highest status first and then acknowledge the oldest. It is important to show respect for status and age.
Wear dark-colors at business meetings.
Always arrive to meetings on time to show respect.
If you have to bring written materials to a business meeting, always bring a copy in both Korean and English.

Foreign Translations
South Korea: Language, Customs, Etiquette

More by Jennifer:
Dos and Don’ts for Eating Korean Cuisine
Benefits of Teaching Overseas
Experiencing Korea’s DMZ

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