Doing Business with Koreans

Today we live in a global business world packed with diverse people and traditions. Therefore, when doing business in a foreign country, it is very important to understand its culture.

Culturelink’s Tania Pellegrini is an expert in teaching business people how to become more effective communicators with nationals of other cultures. Khaya’s CEO, Volkhard Bauer, had an interesting chat with Tania about business practices in Korea. Below we share her insights on how do to business with Koreans.

Kimchi, Gangnam Style, Temples, Religion; What words do you conjure up when you think of Korea? Mountains, snow, technology, fun-loving people… a myriad of images and sounds enter the mind. We’re all looking forward to the upcoming 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang; to lots of pretty scenery, delicious food and fun hi-tech gadgets.

Whether you’re leading your own team in Korea or just visiting and enjoying the hospitality of the Koreans, the tips below may help you make your stay in Korea more enjoyable, more effective and hopefully avoid the frustrations of some cultural misunderstandings and faux pas.

So what are the main Korean cultural values that could cause confusion, misunderstandings or even create situations of conflict in the business environment? With this short article we will look at two values that seem to cause the most discomfort for western business people; hierarchy and the concept of Face.

Hierarchy
Hierarchy permeates every aspect of Korean society. Koreans have a strong following of Confucian ideals. Confucius said that a stable, harmonious society can only be achieved through unequal relationships. This means that each of us has a responsibility to behave according to our position in society and in relation to the people we are dealing with.

Let’s look at two examples that show how hierarchy could affect your business deals.

The first one is your initial meeting with your Korean business partners, clients, colleagues or any Korean organization.

Let’s say you are Mr. Linx and you are meeting your Korean counterpart, Mr. Moon, for the first time. You’ve requested a meeting to discuss some queries that you have. You walk into Mr. Moon’s office and take a seat. You are expecting some small talk, but rather than just talk about the weather, you are quite surprised with the questions that you are being asked:

“So, Mr. Linx”, says Mr. Moon, “How old are?” You are unsure whether or not to answer and think maybe you misunderstood him and you just ignore the question. Mr. Moon then continues with, “Are you married?” You turn away unsure how to behave. Then the third question comes, “So, Mr. Linx, what did you say is your exact title and position within your organization”. Ok, this one you can usually deal with. So why all the (seemingly private) questions? Mr. Moon is trying to figure out what your status is.

Firstly he needs to know if he is the correct person to be speaking to you. If he is of a lower status than yours, he may need to call for somebody else, but it could also be that his status is a little higher than yours and that might also not be appropriate. Plus, he also needs to understand what the correct way of behaving is and of addressing you. It would be painfully embarrassing for him (and you) if he offended you in any way by not using the correct formal address where necessary.

If you are from a culture where it is completely appropriate for juniors in an organization to sit, mingle and give their opinion to those of higher seniority, then you may find this fairly formal distinction between different levels of status a little uncomfortable to deal with. However, irrespective of what you feel is appropriate, it is imperative in Korea to show respect appropriately according to status.

In terms of decision-making, you may also struggle if you are waiting for answers and/or questions from Korean business partners who are not of a high status in the company, as this means they usually do not have the power to make decisions. This could be the reason why your emails are taking so long to be answered, or why you feel your message is just not getting through.

What is the Korean concept of FACE?
Now let’s say you (Mr. Linx) have made it past the initial status-searching questions and you are now in the middle of a meeting with Mr. Moon, his assistant, Ji-Sun and some Korean colleagues of other departments. You ask a number of operational questions and after about 45 minutes you feel you have all the answers. You leave the meeting feeling quite positive.

The following week while back in your office, you start putting into motion all the tasks you believe were agreed to during the meeting in Korea. Then a few days later, you are quite shocked to receive a very long email from Ji-Sun asking a list of questions which you were sure had already been discussed and agreed to during the face-to-face meeting. What went wrong?

The concept of FACE in Korea is extremely strong. What do we mean by Face? To just say that it is a person’s reputation is not strong enough. It is stronger than that. It is what others think of you and how you are perceived to the outside world.

A Korean’s public face must always stay intact if they are to be respected. Therefore if a Korean is in a meeting where she may not have understood everything that is going on, she might not let you know that she has not understood. This is in order to save your face as well as hers.

Imagine what it might insinuate to admit openly in front of everybody in the meeting that something has not been understood; “Mr Linx, I didn’t quite understand”. That could have a number of meanings; you are not explaining yourself very well, or you may think I am not very intelligent or not the right person for the job if I admit to not understanding and you may not trust me any longer, or it could just create a fairly negative feeling. Not just in front of you, but in front of any of the Korean counterparts and colleagues who are also participating in the meeting.

Sometimes a Korean may also just answer, “Yes”, to a question, to keep the atmosphere and relationship harmonious. To be polite and show respect is sometimes more important in Korea than showing that you are capable. Being polite means saying, “Yes”, rather than saying, “No”, which can seem as quite an aggressive word in Korea.

It means that if you are dealing with and negotiating with Koreans, you need to learn to read between the lines of your Korean counterparts. This is a skill-set which not everybody is taught, especially if they have been brought up learning to speak concisely and directly, a style of speech highly appreciated in some Western European and North American countries, but it is a skill-set which can be practiced and learnt.

Hopefully these two insights will be helpful to those of you venturing into Korea for the upcoming events.

Tania Pellegrini is cultural diversity advisor and trainer. She advises business people on creating relationships of trust when dealing with colleagues, service providers and clients of other cultures. For more information on working effectively with Koreans visit www.culture-link.ch.

It means that if you are dealing with and negotiating with Koreans, you need to learn to read between the lines of your Korean counterparts. This is a skill-set which not everybody is taught, especially if they have been brought up learning to speak concisely and directly, a style of speech highly appreciated in some Western European and North American countries, but it is a skill-set which can be practiced and learnt.

Hopefully these two insights will be helpful to those of you venturing into Korea for the upcoming events.

Tania Pellegrini is cultural diversity advisor and trainer. She advises business people on creating relationships of trust when dealing with colleagues, service providers and clients of other cultures. For more information on working effectively with Koreans visit www.culture-link.ch.

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