As a person who might be interested in working for a company in South Korea, it’s important to know the local customs for doing business and experiencing company life. Just like any other country, South Korea has their own particular working and business culture. Thus everyone planning to work or do business in Korea should be aware of the Korean business etiquette before their first meeting.
Let’s cover what you need to know!
Meeting for the first time
In Korea it’s common to be introduced to a new business person by a third party as opposed to introducing yourself. These days it’s become more normal in Korea to shake hands when you meet someone for the first time. However, that hasn’t entirely taken the place of bowing, which might still take place before the handshake.
You should also not go into a first meeting without having your business card ready to be given to the person you are meeting. When receiving a business card from someone else, you should read it carefully before placing it on the table to show the utmost respect. When presenting and receiving business cards, you should also try to use both of your hands.
Do make the appointment for the business meeting ahead of time, perhaps even a few weeks beforehand. Schedule it somewhere in the mid-morning or mid-afternoon, without cutting into anyone’s lunch time.
Be aware of the reality that if these business meetings get cancelled, it often happens with little or no advance notice. If it happens once, it’s probably of no malicious intent but because something unavoidable simply popped up. However, if the same person repeatedly cancels on you, it might be a sign. It could indicate that they’re not that interested in doing business with you or doing business with you must be postponed for some other reasons.
If you’d like to reduce the possibilities of a misunderstanding during a meeting, sending out written materials prior to the meeting is a useful trick. When showing up to the meeting, be punctual and bring a gift with you. Punctuality is a sign of respect. Gift-giving helps in building relationships, thus easing your way to get the result you want out of the meetings.
Koreans prefer contracts to be flexible with room for adjustments and view the interpersonal relationships of the companies as more important than the contract itself. The contract is seen more as simply an outline of the working relationship more so than a binding agreement. Be aware of this and communicate about it clearly with whomever you’ll be signing those contracts with.
Addressing your business partners
While the amount of Koreans using Western names when doing business with you is rapidly growing, they will likely be delighted if you know their Korean name as well. Try to be fully knowledgeable of their title and department, and address them with their title and family name, if applicable.
Building business relationships
Keep nurturing a relationship with your Korean business partner or client after contact has already been made. Some ways to do this is by giving gifts to them on their big national holidays (Korean Thanksgiving and Lunar New Year) or by contacting them and visiting them on your business trips to Korea (even when your business is unrelated to theirs).
It’s very important to show them that you are interested in a long-term relationship and commitment with them instead of just wanting to make profit off of them. Don’t be afraid to bond through personal conversations, though remember not get too personal with them.
Other Korean business etiquette to note
Some other things that you might want to know about Korean people and their business culture is that it’s of high value to be as modest and humble as you can. You might not want to completely undersell your company, but it’s also best to keep your boasting about your company and its achievements to the minimum.
Also, although Koreans in general might want to avoid making eye-contact with someone as a sign of respect, in the business world it’s important to keep eye-contact with whom you’re doing business with to show your sincerity and trustworthiness. When expressing your opinions or possible criticism, try to be as delicate as possible instead of being too direct. Saving face is a big thing in Korea, and being opposed by someone in public can be deemed as greatly embarrassing.
If you’re from the Western world, you might be accustomed to fast decision-making. However, it’s a little bit different in a country like Korea where the sense of hierarchy and collectivity is stronger.
Try to stay patient, as hard as it may be, and don’t expect any conclusions to be made in the first meeting. Maybe even learn a few words of Korean, or at least keep your English as clear and simple as possible for your business partners to understand, as not every Korean business person you’ll meet is confident in their English skills.
There’s a high chance that at least one of your business meetings will take place in a restaurant or a bar. Eating and drinking (especially drinking) are a big part of Korean culture, so participating in drinking with your potential business partner is a great way to help form that interpersonal working relationship with them.
However, if for some reason you can’t drink – such as religious reasons – be honest with them about it. If you’re just not a fan of alcohol, be honest about that, too.
Korean business etiquette wrap-up
The two keywords to end your “lesson” on Korean business etiquette with are ‘Confucian values’ and ‘Kibun’ (기분). ‘Confucian values’ are still very much integrated in Korean culture. This means that respecting authority, collectivity, harmony, working hard, and staying modest are all greatly valued virtues.
‘Kibun’ is another expression for ‘face’, something that’s important to maintain in Korea. Koreans often seek harmonious relationships in both work life and personal life. This might take a while for a straightforward Westerner to grasp as you might often not get a direct ‘no’ as an answer to a question or a request, though it’s subtly implied.
Now that you’re more knowledgeable about Korean business etiquette, you can walk into that meeting with confidence!