With the recent remarkable growth of the Korean economic market, led by internationally recognized corporations like Samsung and Hyundai, Korea as a business destination is becoming increasingly sought after by global companies and businesspersons. Joined by over 800,000 foreign workers currently based in this nation, the Korean business environment is ever-globalizing.
This globalizing landscape, however, doesn’t make it any easier for foreigners to work in and successfully adapt to the Korean business culture and environments. In addition to obvious things such as remembering common courtesy and arriving at the venue 10 minutes before the meeting, there are a set of unique Korean business etiquette and behaviors, and learning and conforming to them can be a pain in the neck. While your Korean business partners and boss would not pick on the lack of your working knowledge of basic Korean culture and customs, knowing a set of business etiquette would help avoid causing offense and make you look like a confident and responsible professional. In this short article, Expat Guide Korea will introduce five easy business etiquette rules and tips you can follow when working in Korea and with Koreans. Whether you are already working in or have a scheduled business trip to Korea, these tips will help increase your chance of success.
A basic business card in Korea should include at least your name, company name, job, title, and contact information. Photo: Design Moa
Koreans in general maintain very vertical relations especially in formal settings, and this means that understanding one’s age and rank is considered very important in Korean culture. In business settings, Koreans tend to prefer dealing and negotiating with people of equal or similar rank within their respective companies rather than people of a lower or much higher position.
Especially if you are visiting Korea from a Western company on a business trip and are used to more equal and horizontal workplace relations, don’t freak out when your Korean business partners overemphasize their titles and ranks while exchanging business cards. When you exchange business cards with Korean workers, make sure that you actually look at and skim their information on the business cards before putting them in your pocket. When exchanging business cards, there are do’s and don’ts in Korea. A rule of thumb is to be ready to receive business cards with respect by using two hands. Taking a note on a business card while the person is still within sight might present you as an ignorant businessperson.
Photo: Shutter Stock
I have been asked a few times whether offering a handshake in Korean business settings is appropriate or not. I would say it is perfectly fine and, in fact, becoming commonplace in the Korean business culture. You cannot be careful and respectful enough in Korea. If your Korean business partners initiate the handshake, the key to their heart is that you use two hands and show respect. This ‘two hands’ rule does apply even when your business partner only offers one hand - at the end of the day, being overly careful and polite is a safer choice in Korean than looking arrogant consciously or unconsciously.
In terms of bowing, it’s quite difficult to get the hang of it. Bowing can be used in many different ways and situations from people bowing to each other in lieu of saying ‘hi’ or ‘goodbye’ to juniors bowing in front of seniors to express respect and deference. In my opinion, Koreans do understand that many foreign workers do not have the culture of bowing back home and don’t expect them to do so appropriately. However, they do equally appreciate the gesture of foreigners trying to bow and be culturally appropriate. Bowing is not something that would offend people anyway, so just bow when you feel necessary.
In Korea, many people have the same family names, which means there could well be hundreds of Mr. Kims and Ms. Lees in one company. As such, make sure you know your Korean business partners’ full names properly. Photo: Medium
Personally, I feel like this is one of the most tricky things for many non-Korean workers. In the context of English-speaking countries, for instance, it would be totally natural in most cases to address your business partners very casually like ‘Hi Bob!’ and ‘How have you been Kate?’ - and it would actually be a little awkward to keep addressing them by their family name and titles.
On the contrary, it is best that you stick to family names when you deal with your Korean business partners or when talking about them with a third person. Remember to address them by their family name along with their titles if you know of them. Otherwise, keep the register of your talking polite and formal by adding Mr/Mrs/Miss when addressing them.
Having said that, they might ask you to call them by their first names if you foster a good relationship. It is also worth noting that many Koreans do use English names nowadays to make it easier for foreigners to remember their names, in which case it is acceptable to address them by their first names in English. Using first and last names properly might initially appear tricky, so remember to always address Koreans by family names unless you are asked to do otherwise.
When building a good and healthy business relationship in Korea, approaching people with a high degree of modesty, humbleness, and humility is of paramount importance. While non-Korean companies might like business persons with confidence or competitiveness, being overconfident and arrogant could do more harm than good in the context of the Korean business market. The key to success is being moderate and humble when describing and demonstrating your abilities, competencies, and achievements while clearly acknowledging that you are not ‘perfect.’
You can contextualize this by thinking about a situation where you give compliments to Koreans on their special talents. In many cases, you would expect them to demur and politely decline your compliments rather than responding with an outright thank you. This, however, does not mean they are unhappy or offended. Rather, it is a Korean cultural etiquette, in which you are expected to accept compliments in a way that shows modesty and minimizes arrogance. It is perfectly fine to show that you are confident and competent, but make sure to let them know that you know there is still room for improvement and you are constantly working to become better.
When you are engaged in business, expressing your ideas or pointing out issues and mistakes associated with your business partners is sometimes necessary. But if you encounter such unavoidable contexts in Korea, you should be practicing utmost caution not to make yourself sound too direct and harsh.
Being familiar with the cultural concept of ‘face’ definitely helps you hedge against a chance of losing business in Korea. Saving or maintaining face is a crucial component of Korean society. Any behaviours that could cause someone to lose face in public - overtly criticising them or identifying weaknesses of a project - are illustrative of your lack of proper business etiquette and should be avoided at all costs.
The idea of saving face also applies to other situations like business negotiations. Even if you are responsible for reaching an agreement, keep in mind that demanding a definite yes/no answer at the negotiation table can become a recipe for failure. Business decision-making in Korea is often a complex and collective process, involving a series of discussions with several people in a team and on the board. A good rule of thumb is to avoid doing things that might make your Korean business partners feel uncomfortable and be extra patient.
Photo: CNN Travel
If you are working for or with a Korean company, there is one concrete thing you can always expect - invitations for dinner after work. The idea of eating together plays an important role in Korean society, and it is almost certain that Korean companies invite you for dinner after a long day of difficult negotiations. Korean business dinner is designed only to wrap up the day, so make yourself ready and available for any potential dinner invitations when you are in Korean for business purposes.
The structure of Korean businesses is sometimes likened to a family, with a clear line of authorities and a strong sense of ‘oneness.’ As such, Korean people tend to focus on building a deep relationship when working and negotiating with others, rather than looking to quickly close deals for the sake of short-term profits. In this regard, business dinner in Korea is considered a place both for rapport-building and to evaluate your personality and trustworthiness and see who you really are as a person. Earning personal trust is so crucial in Korea that important business talks and critical decision-making processes occasionally take place at a dinner table. However, make sure you let the host take the lead and don’t just bring up business talks at a business dinner table out of the blue from your end. In terms of the payment, it is customary that the host covers all the associated costs, but it would still be nice to show the gesture of trying to pay at least.