7 South Korean Business Etiquette you must know | KR SOURCING
Updated: Feb 9
With the advent of so many global marketplaces like Amazon and Alibaba worldwide, all kinds of avenues have opened up for buyers and sellers alike.
With so many opportunities for business people, it is vital to explore all the openings and marketplaces available.
One of the best marketplaces available to budding entrepreneurs is South Korea. So, when you choose to do business in South Korea, you must know the ins and outs of the culture and you are sensitive to their values. This not only leads to great rapport but also helps you close deals effectively.
South Korea hosts a very unique and rich culture and norms, which can be quite different from what the westerners are used to. But with a bit of time and compassion, everyone can learn these values and stand out from the crowd.
Now Koreans do not need you to be an expert in their culture, but even a gesture of compassion and adherence to fundamental Korean values will bode well with the natives. Let us explore what these values are
One of the things you will observe in South Korea is that everybody is in a hurry. Waiters serve you in an instant, and often food delivery personnel leave their safety compromised to get the food to the customer on time.
All this seems to be influenced by the Ppalli Ppalli culture. The term translates to fast or hurry. That is the motto of the Korean public. While the urgency is still backed by thinking and calculations, it remains a way of life in Korea to do their tasks as readily as possible.
Some people think that this culture of hurry has been a significant reason for the resurgence of the Korean economy after the dismal Korean War back in the 1950s.
This hurry culture also translates to the punctuality you see in the Korean public. So, if you are a dealer who wants to procure something from Korea, you will be in safe hands because the suppliers will be in a greater hurry than you in getting your equipment to you in time.
The same punctuality will be observed in a meeting by the Koreans as they would want any meeting to start and end in the designated time. Any failure to adhere to the decided time would be considered disrespectful. The same is the case with too many meeting cancellations, which may come off as a lack of seriousness to Koreans.
What we can safely say is that you can cross timeliness off your list of concerns when it comes to doing business in South Korea.
Having said that, this culture may reflect negatively as a lack of patience in Koreans. What we advise to you is always to keep this in mind, that it is a cultural reality for them and try to reassure them should any inconvenience arise.
Business cards may slowly become obsolete with all the social media sites like Linkedin that reflect your social rank. Still, in South Korea, they hold particular importance and are part of the tradition.
When you meet someone with significant business interest to you, you will exchange cards at the beginning of the discussion.
But wait, it is not so simple. While exchanging business cards, you need to use both hands with the writing facing upwards. Never give a card or anything else with the left hand. Go through the card with sufficient attention and do scan the designation while going through the name.
Treat the card you receive with a great deal of respect and use a business card holder if possible. Always have a bilingual business card with the Korean translation of your name and title clearly stated.
While the meeting continues, keep the business card in a face-up way in front of you and refer to it as and when needed.
Do not put a Korean business card in your jeans or trousers pockets, especially in front of your Korean supplier. Do not write too much on the business card you receive, especially in front of the person who gave it to you. It is accepted to write something on the card you provide, though.
All this may be subtle, but every single thing you do right increases your chances of having yourself a deal.
Greetings are important to get right when working with Koreans.
First and foremost, you must bow when saying hello or goodbye to Koreans. This shows a sense of respect that is normal for them. While doing so, you must keep your hands either on your abdomen or by your side. Also, refrain from lifting your head while bowing.
Now once you start speaking, the way to address your Korean companions is by mentioning their title followed by their surnames. The surnames come first in China and Korea, so you must keep that in mind.
Never address someone by their first names since that is reserved only for close friends and would be considered extremely impolite if you address them this way.
Also, note that Koreans are not strictly business-oriented. So you may be led on by them into friendships or talking non business-related issues with you. Be polite and try to indulge their small talk.
4.Respect for authority and dealers
In the Korean culture, there is a significant emphasis on respecting the elderly, and, indeed, those instilled at higher ranks. This respect is not just kept in their hearts but is expressed at every opportunity possible.
You will observe that in the Korean culture, there is a particular passion in the way they greet their teachers and professors. They acknowledge that these people worked hard for their stature and position and should be envied for it.
Similarly, a sort of esteem is reserved for the rich and powerful as well. The reason for that seems to be the Chaebols culture (meaning wealth clans). There are a few families that control much of the Korean economy through their diverse business network and they are called the Chaebols.
They have infused the culture with a hierarchical system where the rich are powerful and respected. Some of the famous Chaebols you may know of are Samsung, LG, and Hyundai.
So, you may see Koreans ask your wealth status to decide whether to put you in a position of respect or not. This may be considered superficial in some cultures but is close to the capitalistic reality of our world.
The same respect is observed for elders. It is customary for Koreans to ask your age so that they know if you have to be respected or not. It does not matter how minor the age difference is. Even if it is one year, expect the utmost honour and reverence from the Koreans.
Now while we may have blamed capitalism for it, this sense of respect of the elders and authorities has existed for several centuries due to the teachings of Confucius.
Besides this, Confucianism is also deemed responsible for the continued resurgence of the Korean economy and the shared national interest of the business elite and the government in taking Korea to the next level.
So, when you, as a dealer, come to Korea, you will be respected by the younger demographic for your age and by the vendors for your authority.
While dressing up for a Korean business meeting, you should have a suit of a neutral colour alongside a white shirt and formal shoes. Koreans like to dress formally and give great importance to looks.
It is vital to bring your A-game when it comes to socks because you might have to take off your shoes when your Korean companion does so during a meeting.
Now while you see the most flamboyant dresses in K-pop, you will observe that in the business setting, Koreans like conservative dressing and do not prefer individual expression in the workplace. Men keep their jewellery limited to watches and wedding rings while women dress conservatively too.
6.Kibun (Sense of Pride)
A central aspect of Korean business relationships that can lead to disastrous results if not understood by Westerners is the concept of Kibun.
Kibun is tough to associate with a single English word but perhaps a good attribution would be with “the sense of pride”.
What this means for you as a buyer is that the Korean supplier may not say precisely what is meant to be said. The situation may call for a clear “no,” but the Korean supplier would try to bring up ways where the whole thing could still remain feasible.
As an outsider doing business in Korea, you have to understand their efforts to save their pride and maintain social harmony. Ultimately you will have to listen to the unspoken so that no unrealistic expectations are left.
This also means that even when you have a disagreement or do not agree with a small detail that the Korean compatriot of yours mentioned, you would have to resist having to correct them, since this would be a cause of losing their Kibun.
A cultural misinterpretation could be on the cards if you do not respect the Kibun of your business compatriots. Try to respect this fact and try to be a little diplomatic in everything you say.
On the Dining Table, so much of your business may take place. One custom that Koreans seem to have is that they invite you to dinner frequently. And when they do, you must accept.
It is considered as a way to gauge the trustworthiness of you as a buyer and a way to determine whether they would like to deal with you or not.
Koreans do not like splitting the bill in half, and it is customary for the hosts to pay. While eating Korean food, do not place the chopsticks in the noodles or rice; instead, put it on the side of your plate.
Wait for the elders to initiate and do not initiate the business talk, let the Korean hosts ease you into it.
Now while we promised to give you seven tips, one bonus tip would be not to assume that everyone speaks English.
While most of the Koreans do, some still do not. Try to use body language to convey your message and do not use complex words.
When doing business in Korea, remain very of punctuality, carry your business card and respect the business card of others and bow down and address your hosts by their surname.
Besides that, respect any authority figure as is the custom in Korea, follow a conservative dress code, respect the sense of pride of Koreans and accept any dinner invitations Koreans give you.
If you practice all these customs and business etiquette, you are sure to gain acceptance with the general Korean public and become a part of the blooming economic scene of Korea.