One of the most interesting aspects regarding Korean culture is the expression of utmost sincerity and respect to elders and superiors. The same applies in the context of business. In business transactions, one must be very careful as to not offend others as such will have consequences.
How to greet Korean style
Greeting an elder person or superior is very important in doing business in Korea. A good greeting shows both the level of sincerity and respect. Unlike in the West, Koreans make a bow to their superior as a way to say hello and many from America and Europe will find this unusual. However, making a good, respectful bow to elders is the first indication of oneís good manners. Between co-workers of similar ages, however, it is acceptable to omit the bow.
Although the concept of handshakes is almost universal, in Korea, it is done slightly differently than it is in the rest of the world. In the West, a handshake between business partners symbolizes equality and horizontal relationship between the two. In Korea, however, there is a clear verticality when two individuals make a handshake. While the superior or elder person uses just one hand, the other person not only shakes hands but also use the other hand to hold the shaking hand of the elder in a slightly bent posture to show respect.
Talking in Korea business
The avoidance of direct eye contact is a well-known characteristic of Asians. While Americans view direct eye contact as a sign of honesty, is it regarded as being rude in Korean culture and seen as challenging and disrespectful. Instead, Koreans are accustomed to gaze a little below the eyes to look respectful.
Using honorific language
Perhaps one of the most difficulties associated with learning Korean as a foreigner is the use of honorific language. This is a defining characteristic of Korean language and is used by the younger person to show respect to his or her elders. In Korea, children are taught to speak to their parents, teacher, and anyone older using honorific language. In professional settings, however, even co-workers regardless of age difference must converse using honorific language as a way to respect each other. Failure to do so is considered extremely disrespectful.
Being punctual is very important when one is involved in business affairs in South Korea just as it would be important in anywhere else in the world. Since respecting elders and superiors is of great importance in Korean culture, it is highly important that one should be on time for every meeting in order to give positive impression of him or herself. It is also a good idea to show up at a meeting 5 to 10 minutes before it begins. There is nothing worse than being chronically late and having the reputation as someone disorganized, undisciplined, and disrespectful of others' time in the corporate business culture in Korea.
Planning a business meeting
Planning a business meeting can vary depending on one's role and the level of involvement in the matters to be discussed in the meeting. If one were to give a presentation, it is customary that his or her boss sees the summary of the presentation to be given prior to the date of the presentation. Business meeting is also an opportunity to share new business ideas and proposals and thus one must be well prepared for each business meeting.
Business meeting etiquettes
There are common business etiquettes to be followed. These same set of unspoken rules also apply to business affairs in South Korea. It is advisable that one should make it to a meeting at least five to ten minutes before his or her superior does. When a superior comes in, one should show his or her respect by standing up from the seat and greeting the superior with a bow or even with a firm handshake and stay standing until he or she takes a seat. As in any business meeting, cell phones should be kept silent.
Business attire in South Korea is highly westernized. For men, traditional business suits in solid colors or simple stripes are the norm while for women there is more variety. Common suit colors include black, navy, and occasionally brown. One should avoid wearing colors that are too bright such as white or yellow.
South Korea is known for its distinct four seasons, which necessitates having the right clothes for each season. The country is also known to have formidable summer with high temperatures reaching almost 30 degrees C while low temperatures during winter reaching -20 degrees C. Also, carrying an umbrella during summer may be a good idea because South Korea is very humid and rainy during the summer.
Business luncheon and dinner is of extreme importance in Korean business culture. This is not only because important discussion regarding business is made but it is also a chance for business partners learn about each other. As such, one should be cautious as to not make any gesture that could be misunderstood. Unlike in the West, dinner table etiquettes in Korea require that a younger person does not start eating until elders do so. Another common etiquette involves blowing nose in dinner. One must not blow his or her nose in dinner table no matter how bothersome it is not to. Instead, one must excuse him or herself and do so in the absence of others.
††††† With the exception of dishes originating from the Western cuisine, most restaurants in Korea serve food that requires the use of chopsticks. In addition, the ability to use chopsticks is perceived as being intelligent and having good bodily coordination and can give a good impression. As such, inability to use chopsticks is seen as clumsy.
Dining with colleagues and with people from work is common to every working professional in Korea. Therefore, it is helpful for one to get accustomed to the following several representative Korean dishes
∑ Samgyeopsal: Samgyeopsal is grilled pork belly and is dish popular to both men and women. It is served as uncooked thinly sliced pieces and one grills it on a personal or shared grill to his or her liking.
∑ Bulgogi: Bulgogi or otherwise known as Korean barbecue is perhaps the most celebrated Korean dish. Beef is marinated overnight with the Korean barbecue sauce consisting mainly of soy sauce, ground garlic, sesame seeds, salt, and sugar. As in cooking samgyeopsal, one grills bulgogi on a grill to his or her liking.
∑ Bibimbab: Bibimbab is a heart-healthy dish popular to people wanting to taste a variety of ingredients in one dish. It is a rice dish topped with a variety of vegetables and hot Gochujang sauce.
After work get-together
After work get-together is an important aspect of business culture in Korea. Almost all working professionals in Korea get together with their co-workers to have fun after a hard dayís work. One common place that Koreans visit is a Karaoke bar where people can sing and dance in a private room. Common karaoke etiquettes include superior singing the first song and younger people doing so later. Care must be taken when choosing songs. While elders and superior usually sing ballads or trot, an old form of Korean pop music, younger people are expected to sing fast tempo songs to keep the atmosphere fun and lively.
Drinking also involves courtesy and etiquette. In drinking table, it is customary for the younger person to pour drink to the superior using both hands to show respect. Once this is done, the superior in turn fills the younger personís glass while he holds it using both hands. This process is repeated and one usually never fills his or her glass. Even the simple act of drinking should convey a sign of respect in Korean drinking table. This is done by the younger person turning his face away from the elder person with his hand held in front of the glass while drinking. It is also customary for the superior to take care of the bill. Insisting on doing so as a younger person in the group may come as an insult to the elders.
In South Korea, gifts are frequently exchanged between colleagues and in the office as a way to strengthen relationship and improve cohesiveness. Gifts are usually given and received during the holidays and birthdays, or special occasions such promotion. Common gifts in business affairs in Korea include imported alcohol, department store gift cards, and ties and shorts. It is inadvisable to give an overly expensive gift as the person receiving can feel uncomfortable.
There are a number of popular dinner table conversation topics. One of these is politics, which is perhaps the most popular topic among men. However, one must be careful when choosing a political conversation topic as the discussion of a topic with much divided views may rather be unpleasant in dinner table. Another topic to avoid in dinner table with business partners and colleagues is that of North Korea. Views on North Korea and its dictator regime are very divided in different age groups. While some have no problem openly disapproving the actions of North Korea, others may regard the North as an ally. Therefore, one should be careful as to not offend the latter group with criticisms.
There are many striking differences in the business affairs in Korea and those in the United States. Many of these can find their roots in the collectivist and Confucius culture in Korea. The expression of sincerity and respect is the single most important positive gesture that one can make in a business meeting. The key word to understanding business culture in Korea is respect. Remember that the expression of respect to one's superiors will be met with a reward while failure to do so will be met with less than favorable treatment. I am sure that anyone who remembers these lessons are off to a good start in building a professional career in Korea.