South Korean Business Etiquette, Culture, and Practices

Illustration of a businesswoman with an afro shaking hands with a man in glasses while he bows slightly and holds his hand to his belly in the respectful Korean style of shaking hands

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If you’re interested in working for a Korean company or doing business in South Korea, it’s important to know the local customs and etiquette. Like every country, South Korea has its own particular working and business culture, but it can be a bit perilous to navigate without the right knowledge.

If you’re on your way to do business in Korea, then you’ll definitely want to read up on South Korean business etiquette before your first meeting.

Let’s cover what you need to know!

 

Illustration of a businesswoman with an afro shaking hands with a man in glasses while he bows slightly and holds his hand to his belly in the respectful Korean style of shaking hands

Korean values

The two keywords to start your “lesson” on Korean business etiquette with are ‘Confucian values’ and ‘Kibun’ (기분). ‘Confucian values’ are still very much integrated in Korean culture. They hold respect for authority, harmony, collectivity, working hard, and modesty as treasured values.

‘Kibun’ is another expression for ‘face’, as in ‘saving face’. This is akin to one’s reputation among their peers. It’s important to maintain face in Korea. Since Koreans seek harmonious relationships in both work life and personal life, they don’t appreciate actions that could disrupt that, regardless of how good for business it might be.

Formality and Warming Up

These concepts might take a while for a straightforward Westerner to grasp. For example, if you make a request that a Korean can’t (or won’t) be able to fulfill, you’ll often not get a direct ‘no’. Instead they may try to imply that it can’t be done or skirt the issue.

You may also feel that a new Korean business acquaintance maintains a level of formality and emotional distance from you even if you try to be friendly and ‘break the ice’ with them. This isn’t an attempt to be rude or cold.

Company and Social Hierarchies

An important aspect of showing respect in Korean culture is respecting another’s position in the hierarchy, especially if it’s perceived as higher than their own. This is also a big reason why drinking alcohol is so important for business relationships as this gives them an excuse to drop some of that formality to become closer.

So begin your interactions with a bit of reserved formality and try not to act too excited or enthusiastic. Of course if your Korean counterpart is displaying a high level of energy you can try to match their pace to make them feel more comfortable.

Meeting a Korean for the first time

Introduction to Korean Businesspeople

In Korea, it’s common to be introduced to a new business associate by someone else, as opposed to introducing yourself. This helps establish the relationship between the two and the proper etiquette they should use towards one another.

Of course if there’s no third party then it’s no problem to introduce yourself. Remember to give a warm smile. Just because you should start formal, doesn’t mean you can’t start friendly as well!

Korean names and titles 

Many Koreans adopt Western names when learning English and may use these when doing business with you. However, they will likely be delighted if you know their Korean name as well (and can pronounce it properly).

Try to be fully knowledgeable of their title and department, and address them with their title and family name, if applicable. A Korean’s work title and position is a source of great pride so it’s very helpful if you recognize this.

A Handshake vs. Bowing

These days it’s more common 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 or during the handshake.

Korean bows are not as pronounced as in other countries like Japan, but the younger or more junior party should always bow deeper.

When shaking hands, you can also bow slightly and break eye contact. Your handshake can be as firm as the other party offers but it’s often better if it’s on the gentler side.

During the handshake, the person in a lower position might also shake with both hands, or support their other hand at the forearm, or place their hand across their belly. These actions show a greater degree of respect and deference.

As a westerner, you don’t need to worry about bowing for the most part. But although you’re not expected to bow, the gesture is always appreciated by Koreans.

Also note, it’s not unusual for Korean women to offer a bow instead of a handshake. Don’t think anything of it if that happens. For formal and business situations it’s considered more appropriate for Korean woman to maintain a certain distance from men.

Likewise, if you’re a woman, you have the option of just bowing instead of shaking hands.

Handling Business Cards

You should go into your first meeting with your business card ready to be given to the person you are meeting. This often takes place immediately before or after shaking hands.

When presenting and receiving a business card from someone else, you should use both hands. Spend 30 seconds to look it over and read it carefully, even if you’re meeting several people. Each will wait their turn and appreciate the short time you take to give attention to their business card.

It’s polite to make some comment on their position or some other piece of information on their business card. Hold each business card as you comment on it. Once you’re done reading it, put the card in front of you on the table.

If you’re standing, then hang onto the business card until you are able to put it in your briefcase. This is better than putting them directly into your pocket. If you have a business card holder that’s the perfect place to put the ones you receive.

Don’t write on the business card, or put it in your back pocket to sit on. A business card is an extension of a Korean worker’s position and title, and treating their business card poorly could be interpreted as a lack of respect for their position.

Eye Contact

Koreans in general avoid making eye-contact with someone as a sign of respect. However, in the business world it’s important to keep eye-contact with whom you’re doing business with to show your sincerity and trustworthiness (except when bowing).

Of course, do so in a natural and friendly way. It’s not a staring contest!

Language abilities

Most Korean business people you interact with will have a good command of English, but may still be nervous about using it. So if you know a few Korean words, it’s a great idea to use them.

Demonstrating an interest in their culture and a desire to understand with a few words of Korean can go a long way to putting them at ease.

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Going about business meetings

Make appointments for business meetings in advance, even a few weeks beforehand if possible. Meetings in Korea are often scheduled 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 popped up.

However, if the same person repeatedly cancels on you, it could indicate that they’re not that interested in doing business with you. Or possibly that doing business with you must be postponed for some other reason.

If you’d like to reduce the possibility of a misunderstanding during a meeting, send out written materials on what you will cover beforehand. This can be a useful action, and Koreans will see you as more organized.

When showing up, be punctual and have a small tasteful gift ready if it’s the first meeting. This is a nice gesture and Koreans will often appreciate it.

However, don’t give anything too grandiose or expensive on the first encounter. This will cause them to lose face if they didn’t prepare a gift for you.

Punctuality and Traffic

Koreans value punctuality so be on time or a little early. But also understand that your Korean associate may have a busy schedule and might be somewhat late. If you will be late, be sure to call ahead and let them know. Punctuality is a sign of respect.

Keep in mind that if your meeting is in Seoul, you may run into heavy traffic or have challenges finding a taxi.

Additionally, some of the buildings may not be easy to find, even for the taxi driver. Given that, make sure you factor in a minimum 30 minute time buffer.

Sensitive Topics

Much like a western working place, it’s important to avoid discussing sensitive topics.

Some examples include discussing North Korea, issues related to your Korean associate’s family, or politics in general. This is doubly important in Korea, since a harmonious work environment is highly valued.

Many Koreans will have strong opinions on these issues, some even opposed to their other Korean colleagues. Try not to introduce topics that could disrupt social harmony as this won’t be seen as a good sign to do business with you.

Understanding business contracts

illustration of two businessmen having signed a contract sitting across from each other and shaking handsKoreans prefer contracts to be flexible with room for adjustments. A certain level of vague language is to be expected.

The interpersonal relationships between the companies is often viewed as more important than the contract itself.

The contract is simply an outline of the working relationship rather than a binding agreement.

Be aware of this and communicate clearly with whomever you’ll be signing a contract with in terms of your expectations and theirs. That way you can avoid some unpleasant surprises in what you expected of them and they of you.

Building better business relationships

A strong relationship with your Korean business partner or client needs nurturing and maintenance in order to be sustained. Korean businesses, even small ones, often deal with dozens of different individuals.

So it helps to keep yourself fresh in their minds.

Korean Business Relationships

This doesn’t have to be anything extreme. Some easy ways to maintain a relationship could be occasionally going to eat and drink with them, or having a friendly chat.

To keep the relationship strong, you could give gifts to them on their important national holidays (Korean Thanksgiving and Lunar New Year for example). You could also contact them and visit them on your trips to Korea, even when your business is unrelated to theirs.

In the latter case, it’s good form to bring a small souvenir from wherever you were, usually a snack of some kind that has a professional appearance. This is common practice and demonstrates a level of commitment to a working relationship with them.

Attitudes and compliments

Something else that you should know about Korean people and their business culture is that it’s important 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 its achievements to a minimum.

This includes boasting too much about yourself, or even complimenting your Korean associate too much. Of course everyone enjoys a compliment or two thrown their way, especially when deserved. But too much will be viewed as insincere in Korea.

Direct and Indirect Talk

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 doing anything that could cause someone to lose face in public can be quite humiliating.

If it’s necessary to bring up an issue or criticism, it’s better to do so in private with that Korean individual so they can avoid being embarrassed.

Decision Making

If you’re from the Western world, you might be accustomed to fast decision-making. However, in a country like Korea where the sense of hierarchy and collective harmony is stronger, things often move at a slower pace.

Stay patient, as hard as it may be, and don’t expect any decisions 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.

Once business relationships in Korea are formed, they are extremely strong. Therefore, Korean businesses exercise  great care in forming new ones.

Bonding and building rapport

To show them that you are interested in a long-term relationship, don’t be afraid to bond through personal conversations and building rapport. However, remember not to get too personal with them. Be friendly but be professional.

A big part of doing business in Korea involves eating and drinking together after business hours. There’s even a high chance that at least one of your business meetings will take place in a restaurant or a bar.

photo of Korean barbecue

Photo credit: http://sf.eater.com

Don’t be surprised by this, as eating and drinking together (especially in a professional setting) is a major part of Korean culture.

Drinking and Socializing

Because eating and drinking is so important in Korean culture, participating in drinking with your potential business partner is a great way to help form that interpersonal working relationship with them. You might even suggest going out to eat or drink together after your meeting concludes.

This allows for a more informal interaction which is very important in Korea’s rigid social hierarchy. It’s not uncommon for Korean business people to get a little tipsy before making business arrangements.

In fact, it’s often during these interactions that the real business is done and strong working relationships formed.

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.

Koreans do business around the world, so they’re familiar with different customs. They’ll be understanding, but it may take more time to form a stronger business relationship with you.

Illustration of 4 co-workers talking together at their computers

Now that you’re more knowledgeable about Korean business etiquette, you can walk into that meeting with confidence!

What questions do you have about Korean business etiquette? Let us know in the comments below!

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