South Korea is home to leading electronic companies: LG, Samsung; car companies: Hyundai and Kia along with many manufacturing operations and a large market of consumers interested in the latest trends in electronics, fashion and music. I spent two years working in Seoul and over time learned the ins and outs of doing business in the Land of the Morning Calm aka South Korea. It is difficult for expats to be perceived as part of the group and many times their leadership traits can come off as arrogant or confrontational. I surveyed expats from South Korea who have lived there for 5+ years to get their advice on successfully doing business overseas.
Confucian ethics dominate Korean thought patterns and this translates into business terms by having great respect for authority, age and seniority. Confucian respect for authority dictates that managers will be respected simply because they are the manager.
Subservient employees will not question the authority of their manager, despite knowing or believing an alternative idea to be superior. They will also remain in the office well past the time they’ve finished their tasks until the manager leaves to prove how dedicated they are to the company.
Appearance is important in Korea so one should look their best at all times – both for formal and informal gatherings. Be smartly and conservatively dressed and maintain good, upright body posture at all times in formal situations.
Western cultures are known for caring about appearances and giving merit because someone looks good. However, it is hard to explain how closely your looks are scrutinized in South Korea: facial blemishes verbally pointed out, comments on weight gain or needing to lose weight, questions about hair styles, make-up choices and types of outfits you wear. If you are visiting Seoul you will need to dress nicely for all business situations, for men: suits, ties and leather shoes; for women: skirts, tights, heels and a nice handbag. The nicer you look the more credit you are given.
Korean managers are expected to take a holistic interest in the well-being of their staff and this includes an interest in their personal life.
I was routinely asked by managers, bosses and coworkers, if I was married, had children, did I have a significant other, where I lived and what my parents did for a living. They are not trying to pry or be nosy, they have a genuine interest in your life, so open up and let them in!
The majority of business relationship building takes place in the bars and restaurants of South Korea. If invited out for dinner, it is advisable to accept as these are often the occasions where your South Korean contacts will really decide if you are a trustworthy honorable person. Korea has one of the highest per capita alcohol consumption rates in the world – so many business dinners are accompanied by fairly heavy drinking. You do not, of course, have to drink a lot if you don’t want to, but the Koreans will enjoy your company all the more if you join in with the general atmosphere of revelry.
Like other Asian cultures, you will want to make an effort to keep your superior’s glass filled. When pouring and receiving always use two hands. Always pass and receive objects with your right hand (supported by the left hand at the wrist or forearm) or with two hands. A great deal of business decisions are actually made outside the conference room, in these informal settings, so to not attend could actually put you or your company at a disadvantage from a business dealings standpoint.
Use both hands if possible when presenting and receiving a business card. If that is not possible, use your right hand and support your right elbow with your left hand. Business cards should be treated as an extension of the person. Therefore you should read it carefully and then place it on the table in front of you. To put someone’s card in your pocket or to write on it, etc. is to show disrespect to the person.
Less than in Japan, a bowing of the head and upper shoulders is still considered incredibly polite and a tribute to the recipient. You can do a waist level bow if something is really serious or you really messed something up!
Susan Forrester is a full-time student in the Masters in International Management program. She received a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from Portland State University. After living in Seoul, South Korea for two years she was interested in finding a career that linked Oregon and Asia together through trade. Susan enjoys the diverse background of the MIM student body that allows her to frequently practice her beginner level Chinese.