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South Korean business culture and etiquettes Business Style Koreans prefer to do business with people they know, so an introduction by a trusted third party may be necessary. The first meeting is typically used to establish the trust and rapport that are vital to the success of business relationships. Koreans value strong work ethics. Punctuality and deadlines are diligently observed, and commitment to overtime—unwillingness to leave work on time—is common. Employees and employers are reluctant to ask for or give time off, apart from sick days or family-related circumstances. Korea has traditionally adhered to a six-day workweek (Monday through Saturday, or a half-Saturday) but many offices are moving toward a five-day workweek. July and August are popular months to take vacation time for many businesspeople, so try to schedule your appointments around then, as well as other major Korean holidays.
The Korean business climate still operates via a patriarchal, male-dominated approach. Foreign businesswomen are able to do business, but may find they have to overcome a certain level of discomfort among their Korean male counterparts. Korean businessmen may feel more comfortable if visiting women adopt a refined and modest demeanor, and use quiet tones of voice. Visiting women managers from more egalitarian cultures may experience great frustration when less senior male members of their team are accorded deference and respect by Korean counterparts, while their own views are ignored. Visiting teams who suspect they may encounter this difficulty are advised to consider ahead of time how to respond to encounters with this cultural divide. Etiquettes The traditional gesture of greeting and departure is a bow. Upon greeting men, it is often accompanied by a handshake. To show further respect, support your handshake—always done with the right hand—by grasping your right forearm with the left hand. Korean women will typically not shake hands. A non-Korean woman may offer her hand to a Korean man, unless he is higher in status, in which case he will initiate the handshake. Be attentive to context and behavior. Eye contact generally conveys attentiveness, though steady eye contact is less appropriate between people of differing ranks or between men and women. Physical contact, unless you are family members or close friends, is generally inappropriate. A smile from your Korean counterpart may not indicate approval, but rather embarrassment they cannot publicly announce.
Likewise, a nod during conversation may not indicate agreement, but rather merely comprehension. Apart from a handshake, it is inappropriate to physically touch—with a shoulder pat, a back slap—a Korean person. While seated, keep your feet on the floor; feet are considered dirty and the soles (even if covered by shoes) should always be pointing down, so refrain from stretching out your legs or crossing them in ways that point the sole of your foot at someone. Pass items with both hands or with your right hand supported by your left at the wrist or forearm. Do not point with your index finger. Do not beckon a person with a single index finger. To beckon, extend your arm with your palm down and move your fingers up and down. Beckoning anybody of a higher station than you is disrespectful. Negotiating Negotiating in South Korea can be quite a formal affair. There is a prescribed etiquette for most situations in the country, and it is important to familiarize yourself with the correct protocols in order to win both the respect and the trust of your business counterparts. Most South Koreans are not fluent in English, and you will probably need to hire a translator. A good translator can help you understand the unique cultural aspects of your counterparts’ behavior, enabling you to negotiate effectively. Be aware that South Koreans can be tough negotiators. This does not detract, however, from their emphasis on a strong, friendly business relationship. Respond in kind if they grow competitive, but make sure to keep a fine balance between competition and a friendly atmosphere.
Meetings South Korean business culture is highly nuanced, and expected behavior is often considerably different from Western social norms. Take time to familiarize yourself with South Korean culture so that you can establish a strong foundation of trust and cooperation. A stable, long-term relationship is considered a high priority in the business world, and it is important to make an effort to interact with your counterparts on their terms. Preparation:- It is a good idea to use an intermediary when making initial contact with a potential business counterpart. The intermediary can help create a feeling of trust during the early stages of the business relationship. He or she can also help bridge the cultural gaps between you and your counterparts. A chamber of commerce, bank, or embassy can help you find an appropriate contact to serve in this capacity. Send your counterparts information about your company, its accomplishments, expertise, and what makes its products superior to those of similar companies. South Koreans like to be well informed about their potential business partners. They also take hierarchies seriously. Provide them with a list of team members prior to the meeting. List each member of your team in hierarchical order and include titles, roles, and qualifications. You will probably need to have a translator at the meeting. Inquire in advance and include extra time for translating in your schedule.
Choose a translator who is multicultural as well multilingual. A good translator can also help you understand important cultural nuances. It is probably a good idea to hire a male translator, as South Koreans often do not consider women in the workplace as fully equal. If your counterparts offer to provide a translator, politely decline: you want a translator who is on your own team, to give you the best edge. Make sure to plan a strategy with your translator prior to the meeting. Hold a practice session. It’s important to make sure that you work well together. Using a few phrases in South Korean may make a good impression on your business counterparts. Scheduling In South Korea’s formal business environment, meetings must be scheduled well in advance. Be aware that your South Korean counterparts may be reluctant to let you know directly if they are not interested, and may instead respond with an expression of very weak interest. Your intermediary can help you gear your presentation toward your specific audiences. Be sure to put together a well-developed presentation; include a comprehensive agenda and a clear proposal. You will be expected to bring whatever equipment you need for your presentation. When you schedule your appointment, be sure to request those items that you cannot provide (such as a sound system or projector). Business Attire Koreans tend to dress well and fairly conservatively. If you adapt to this dress while visiting, it shows respect for your host culture. Standard attire for men is a professional Western-style suit in dark or muted colors, plus a white shirt and a tie. A suit is standard regardless of weather or season. Professional women should stay with conservative business suits or dresses in dark or subdued colors, and avoid revealing or tight clothing.
Since many people sit on the floor in restaurants, short and tight skirts are best avoided as impractical in any case. Sleeveless tops and miniskirts are considered unprofessional, although a nice jacket over a sleeveless top would be acceptable. The dark, traditional, subdued color palette of old is starting to give way to brighter colors, especially with the younger generation of employees. Visitors should, however, refrain from dressing in bright colors until they have a better sense of, and footing within, their host’s business climate. Dressing in a refined manner will improve your counterparts’ opinion of you. Avoid rich-looking jewelry, which your counterpart may see as ostentatious. Meeting Protocol South Koreans conduct business with a great deal of formality. It is important to respect their customs and interact with them on their terms in order to establish a solid foundation for your business relationship. Entering the Meeting Room: Hierarchy Your counterparts’ team will enter the room in hierarchical order; the senior member will sit in the middle of their side of the table.
You should enter the room in a similar manner. Pay attention to the way people are treated on the South Korean team. Superiors are treated with a good deal of respect, and subtle acts of deference will clue you in to the way the team is structured. Introductions Introductions are accompanied by a gentle handshake—avoid offering a hearty “Western-style” handshake. Younger South Koreans sometimes bow slightly to those who are older or senior to them. Forms of Address Address your counterparts using the titles Mr./Mrs./Miss and their last name. First names are very personal in South Korea and are used only by close friends. Some older South Koreans prefer that their first name is not even spoken aloud when they are in the room. Many South Koreans share common last names, and in large companies, people may be known by their titles, their last names, and their departments—for example, “Mr. Kim of engineering.” Professional and academic titles are a sign of prestige and should be used whenever they apply. These titles are used aftera person’s last name—for example, “Kim, paksa,” (Dr. Kim).
The honorific “Son Saeng Nim” (teacher or honored person) is an appropriate title for an elder. Business Cards Business cards are exchanged using both hands. Having one side of your card printed in Korean will be well received. Take a minute to study your counterpart’s card as a sign of respect before putting it away. South Koreans usually list their names in English to aid in pronunciation, as a courtesy to foreign business counterparts. Be sure to include your title and any special degrees or qualifications on your card. Bring plenty, because cards are exchanged constantly. Body Language Ask your translator to make recommendations about body language so that you can synchronize what you say with the correct gestures. Avoid making physical contact and don’t stand too close to your counterparts. Large hand gestures are considered rude. Making eye contact is a sign of interest and respect. South Koreans often nod as a sign of comprehension; a nod does not necessarily signal agreement. Some gestures that are common in Western cultures mean something completely different in South Korea.
Holding your hand palm up and waving your fingers up and down means goodbye for Westerners, but “come here,” in South Korea. The American “okay” symbol, with thumb and forefinger forming a circle, means money. Winking has no meaning in South Korean culture, and beckoning with one finger is used only for animals. Never point a finger at a person or thing; instead use an open hand, with your palm face-up. Decision Making Power Structures:- Confucianism, a philosophy that emphasizes social order, is embedded within Korean society. Everyone has a distinct place and role within a structure, be it the family or workplace, and those with seniority—whether by age, education, or job position—garner more respect. Employees with more education and seniority have traditionally been the ones to advance through the ranks. However, the business climate is slowly shifting toward a more performance-based merit system. Still, heeding this social order, Koreans rarely act as individuals, but defer to group cohesion. The structure of top-down management is slowly growing more inclusive of group opinions and consensus. Top managers, then, in some cases serve more as a coordinators of the process than true decision makers. Note that the title “director” is often assigned to middle-management positions in Korea. This creates a possibility for confusion if the visiting team is from a place that uses titles differently.
For example, in the United States, a director may be equivalent to a company president. Especially if your company position ranks you higher than middle management, you may wish to investigate the Korean understanding of your title, and make adjustments accordingly in how you present yourself. Key Contacts:- Although many companies adhere to a hierarchical structure, much responsibility is also delegated to subordinates. It is critical that respect be paid to all ranks of employees, not just to your counterpart or immediate superior Gifts and Splitting the Bill It is customary to exchange small gifts with business counterparts. If you offer a gift, your counterparts will probably reciprocate, so make sure your choice is in a price range that they can afford. Money may also be exchanged before or after a contract is signed; this is not considered a bribe, but it is probably best to confer with a business consultant for guidelines. Money should be given in an envelope and gifts should be wrapped. Opening a gift in front of the giver is considered a sign of greed. Liquor is a good choice when exchanging gifts with men; if you give liquor to a woman, indicate that it is for her husband. If you accept a gift, you incur obligations. Graciously declining is acceptable unless the gift is given in a purely social setting. You may be invited for drinks or dinner after the meeting. These sessions can often last late into the night.
You may find that your senior counterparts will not attend; feel free to politely turn down the invitation so that you can get some rest before negotiating the next day. South Koreans see entertaining as an integral part of building a business relationship. You will probably be invited to join your counterparts in expensive restaurants. It is important to reciprocate these invitations. The host pays the bill at the end of the meal, though it is customary for guests to make a show of offering to pay. When you host, make arrangements for payment beforehand so that a check is not brought to the table. Consider limiting the number of invitations you accept; you will probably receive many, and reciprocating each time can grow costly. While South Koreans may disregard a contract as a mere piece of paper, their sense of dignity will compel them to honor their commitments if there is a solid relationship in place. Stay in touch even after you leave the country and plan to make several trips back to South Korea to keep the relationship strong and effective. Entertaining Activities Like much of Korean business life, entertaining is a formal and often downright serious matter. Koreans like to showcase their culture and cuisine when entertaining foreign firms.
These outings are an important part of establishing the bond between business cohorts. Because of this, spouses are usually not included. Music recitals, literary readings, sporting events, and museum tours will be offered with a distinct element of cultural self-promotion. Karaoke—singing along to popular recorded songs—is often a big scene, so prep your pipes. You don’t have to be good, but you should be willing. These types of cultural events are becoming more popular with the increase of women in the workforce. For some, alcohol is a big part of the Korean “tough businessman” image. If you are invited to go out for drinks, do not decline—or, if you must, do so apologetically and with legitimate reasons (e.g., you must stay in to contact family or business back home, an excess of work, etc.). If you do go out, some counterparts may try to engage you in a “last man standing” type of drinking challenge—compete at your peril. The “tough guy” attitude toward alcohol is changing with the times, however, in a number of ways. For example, the increasing number of women in the workplace is changing the concept that respectable women abstain from alcohol; businesswomen now can and do drink (often in an effort to keep up with the men—again, one should undertake this very carefully or not at all).
There is also a shift in emphasis from quantity to quality—for example, less cheap booze and more good-quality wine. You may refrain from drinking too much or from drinking at all, for stated religious or medical reasons. Do, however, try to keep up with the camaraderie, as that is conducive toward the business deals that may be closed the next day—or even that very night. Food in Korea, which tends toward the spicy hot, is a cultural icon. Only medical or religious dietary restrictions will be accepted as legitimate, no insulting excuses for declining local delicacies. If Korean cuisine is unfamiliar to you and you are not an adventurous eater, remember that it is better to take small quantities than none at all.
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