WORKING ABROAD / MAY. 30, 2014
version 2, draft 2

How to Master Business Etiquette in South Korea

South Korea is beautiful country with a very proud history in interesting culture. Despite the constant disputes it has with North Korea, a country that it is still technically at war with, South Korea is for the most part a very safe and beautiful country to visit. If you choose to do business in South Korea, however, it is important that you understand the unique business etiquette that is required of you to be successful is such a venture.

Relationships

To Koreans, family relationships are the most important relationships of all, with many families able to trace their lineage back 500 years. It means that most families are extremely hierarchical with the father and eldest son being the most important members of the family. This male dominated hierarchical structure is mirrored in the way that they conduct business with most businesses passing from father to son.

The role of the Confucian religion also has a huge impact on business due to the importance that Confucianism places on relationships. Even beyond the family unit, Koreans are only comfortable doing business with a person if they feel they have a personal connection with them. As such, having some sort of intermediary to make the initial introductions may be extremely beneficial.

Names

In Korea, names are extremely important. The name is also written with the family name first followed by a two part first name. You should address people as Mr + family name. However, if they are a high ranking individual you should address them using the appropriate professional title.

Punctuality

Koreans are generally quite punctual; however, they tend to keep themselves quite busy so arriving too early for a meeting may be viewed as rude or unprofessional.  Arriving just before the meeting or right on time is the best option.

Small Talk: Dining and Socialising

Once a meeting begins you should be prepared to engage in small talk before getting down to business. If it is a first meeting you would usually be asked questions about your family, favourite sports, and whether it was your first trip to Korea.

It is also extremely common to socialise with potential new business partners. Going for meals involving rather large amounts of food and alcohol is extremely common when discussing business matters. Going to play golf is also another common activity for business men. The main reason for this is so that they can get to know you better rather than just to talk business. As previously mentioned the personal relationship is extremely important to Koreans.

Greetings: Bowing and Handshakes

Bowing is the traditional greeting in Korea although this is often accompanied by a handshake among Korean men. Korean women usually nod silently and do not usually shake hands with western men.

Dress Code

As is typical in most Asian countries, Koreans usually dress quite conservatively. They do however usually wear quite expensive clothes. A formal suit will be appropriate for nearly any business situation for men. Women should avoid straight tight skirts as they will certainly have to sit on the floor at some point. Modesty is the important factor for women.

Business Cards

Similar to other Asian countries, a lot of importance is placed on business cards. Koreans use it to quickly determine name title and status within a company. As such it is important to bring business cards with you that have English on one side and Korean text on the other side. You should both give and receive the cards with two hands and take time to study them. If you are sitting down then you should place cards in front of you for the duration of the meeting and never put them into your pocket as this is a sign of disrespect.

Gift Giving

Gift giving is extremely common in South Korea. If you are invited to someone’s home you must bring a gift. It is also extremely common to exchange gifts at an initial business meeting. Your gift should be nicely wrapped and not too expensive as Koreans usually reciprocate with a gift of equal value. Gifts are never unwrapped in the presence of the gift giver.

Although Korean culture differs from our own in so many ways, many of these tips are easy to follow. As long as you are respectful, sociable and remember to treat business cards with respect, you should have a relatively smooth experience doing business in South Korea. 

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