Cultural Intelligence VIII: Korea

This series is edited by Dick Locke, SI’s resident expert on International Trade, author of Global Supply Management — A Guide to International Procurement (which was the definitive guide for almost a decade), and President of the Global Procurement Group which regularly gives seminars on International Trade and working with International Cultures.

As highlighted in last year’s post on Overcoming Cultural Differences in International Trade with Korea, while the Republic of Korea has a lot of similarities with the Asian countries that surround it, it also has a lot of differences. Having built the third largest Asian economy in less than half a century, starting with low-cost high-quality export production and then a move into high-tech high-value-add in the 90s, Koreans tend to move at a rapid pace. Also, as (recent) history has taught them that compromise leads to defeat and second place spells disaster, they are extremely competitive. They are always looking for an advantage, quick profits, and a quick sale … which is generally more important to them than the development of solid, long-term, business relationships.

With respect to Locke‘s seven key cultural differences (first outlined as six in his classic text on Global Supply Management), power distance is moderately high as they have a vertical society that observes strict protocol, time is very monochronic and punctuality is expected, and your rank as a buyer is moderate. However, while they are quite high on uncertainty avoidance, unlike many Asian countries, they are willing to experiment and take risks if the reward is there. They are strongly influenced by hahn, which describes the build-up of pent-up energies, unrequited yearnings, and general frustrations, so while harmony is important, so is competition. However, kibun (hurting someone’s pride), is a very sensitive issue, and face is more important to them than it is to the Japanese. They are quite individualistic for an Asian country, though not as individualistic as North Americans, and very personal.

With respect to verbal communication, they are the most direct of the Asian countries, except where “no” is concerned, which must always be delivered indirectly or as a “maybe”. You should keep your volume moderate and avoid being boisterous (with the only exception being you are at a club and drunk, but then you must apologize for it immediately the next day).

With respect to non-verbal communication, as with the Japanese, body language conveys respect and you should learn when, and how, to bow. You need to avoid large gestures, bold facial expressions, and maintain a harmony in your emotions. While you need to be close enough to exchange business cards or pour drinks, you must not get too close and you must avoid touching them. With the exception of the handshake, physical contact is inappropriate unless the individuals are peers of the same sex or family. However, unlike some other Asian countries, eye contact is important and indicates sincerity and attentiveness.

Meetings are structured, and its important to provide information, including information on all attendees, in advance. Be sure to avoid writing anyone’s name in red (including your own). While negotiations can take place at the table, deliberations will be made in a group before a decision is made. As with other cultures, meals are common, with the etiquette similar. The major difference being that you should finish everything on your plate, but even if you are still hungry, you must refuse the first offer of seconds. Most Korean businessmen tend to believe that they will get to know a business partner, colleague, or customer better over a few drinks (which should be held with the right hand) and invitations after business hours will be common. Lean what gunbae means.

Finally, modesty is very important. If you are complemented, you should indicate that you are not worthy of such praise.

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