South Korean Business Etiquette

In South Korea it’s not unusual for business people to schedule meetings very close together, sometimes causing a delay in the next meeting. Although your South Korean counterpart may be slightly late you should plan on being precisely on schedule. Allow for traffic delays by leaving a few minutes early when traveling through large cities.

Great times for business meetings is from 10 a.m. to noon or from 2 to 4 p.m. Many Koreans take vacation from mid-July to mid-August so try to avoid these months for scheduling appointments. Other inappropriate days are the Lunar New Year in January or February, the Moon Festival in September or October. Lunar dates change annually so check a Korean calendar online before scheduling. Business hours are usually 9 to 5 from Monday to Friday. Some offices are open on Saturdays.

Dress for office is conservative with brown, black and navy as appropriate colors. Women should avoid tight skirts since meals are often eaten while sitting on the floor. Sleeveless numbers and really short skirts are unprofessional in this culture. Casual wear is not all that casual with shorts and tennis shoes being rarely displayed in public.

It’s not unlike Koreans to ask extremely personal questions about your salary, education, age or religion. They don’t see this as intrusive but as a way to get to know you quickly and working towards a rapport. Sidestep these questions gracefully if you do not wish to answer. Modesty is important in the way you dress, speak and carry yourself. Never single out one person, whether for praise or criticism.

Speak modestly and don’t brag or pat yourself on the back. Many people have trouble distinguishing between Asian cultures. Korea is not Japan or China. Do not make the mistake of confusing the cultures or you’ll not only be seen as rude but also as ignorant. Negativity is not well accepted in this culture. Answer questions in the most positive way possible. Koreans, as with other Asians, do not like to offend and will often avoid saying “no” or “not”.

Don’t go into great elaborations when asked a question. Keep answers concise and to the point to make the best impression. Being too animated in gestures and facial expressions is not seen in a positive way. Avoid jokes while doing business and avoid distasteful jokes always.

Topics to avoid while visiting are politics, the Korean war, communism, another’s personal life and particularly, another’s wife. Topics of sports, the local culture, Korea’s accomplishments and personal interests are acceptable.

Address others with title and last name unless invited to do otherwise. After hearing a person’s title the next name that follows is generally the last name, or family name. If unsure how to address the associate it’s not rude to ask for clarification.

Gift-giving is commonplace in the business world of South Korea. Whereas some cultures see gift-giving as bribery it’s acceptable to give gifts in return for favors or to build the relationship in this country. Gifts from your own country will be the most impressive, regardless of the price. When handing out more than one gift make sure that senior members are given gifts with greater value than junior members. Respect for seniors is everything in South Korea. Gifts of money, especially for children, are acceptable as long as it is first placed in an envelope. Money is given for weddings, birthdays and funerals in particular.

Accepting a gift on the first offering is considered ill-mannered so don’t be surprised if you have to insist the recipient take the present. Refuse a gift that you’re offered at least twice before finally accepting it graciously. Receive and give gifts with both hands, no matter how small the package. Gifts are generally not opened in front of the giver. If you know the person well it is acceptable to ask if you should open it or wait. Upon receiving a gift it’s proper etiquette to reciprocate but not attempt to “outdo” the other.

Business cards should be written in English on one side, Korean on the other. The same should be done of any business materials and paperwork. Present business cards with both hands. Make a show of studying the associates’ cards before placing them gently in briefcase or card holder. Do not write on the business card since this is considered very disrespectful.

Business decisions can take some time so don’t expect to have only a meeting or two before the completion of deals. Sending proposals and other pertinent paperwork, in advance, can help somewhat. Status is important here so send the most senior member that is also knowledgeable and likeable. Having a good rapport will make all the difference since many business decisions are based more on personal relationships than the all-business aspects.

Keep a formal demeanor during business meetings rather than getting comfy and seemingly over-friendly. Be sincere and honest rather than boasting or exaggerating. Although South Koreans are usually friendly, negotiations can sometimes be very aggressive. During negotiations you can expect anything from anger and frustration to accusations and outrage. Strive to maintain patience and an air of professionalism. Showing that you’re not easily shaken will only improve your relationship with the South Koreans. Pauses in the conversation or negotiations should be time for reflecting so don’t feel as though you need to fill these spaces with chatter.

Make a point of addressing the eldest member of any group first, whether in business or social settings. Allow older people to go ahead of you in a line or go first through a doorway. Never smoke or wear sunglasses in the presence of elders.

As in many Asian cultures the concept of “saving face” is extremely important. Causing someone in the company to lose face is all it takes to end the business deal. Someone can lose face if you correct them, yell, act surprised at something they’ve said, or if you criticize. Koreans often attempt to spare you “losing face” by saying “yes” when they mean “no”.

In Korea drinking often accompanies meals, business meetings, and social affairs. As a matter of fact some Korean business people feel that they can get to know their American counterpart easier after they’ve plied him with a few drinks. State religious or medical reasons for not drinking or you’ll be pressed to partake. Whether you’re drinking or not offer a drink to the most senior member of the group. Offer drinks with both hands, particularly if the person is much older than you. If you’re socializing at one of the many popular karaoke bars you’ll likely be asked to sing. To refuse is seen as rude.

Remove your shoes when entering a home. Eating, sleeping and sitting are done on the floor in most homes of South Korea. You will usually be offered slippers to wear instead. Place shoes in a position as the others have, usually facing a particular direction. Feet are perceived as dirty and should never touch objects or others. Being invited to someone’s home for dinner does not extend to wandering around the premises.

When toasts are being made lift glass with right hand only. A sign of extra respect is done by lifting the glass with the right hand and supporting the elbow with the left. Draining a glass completely is a sign that you would like a refill. To keep from getting one more refill leave a portion of the drink in the glass.

Generally conversation is kept to a minimum during dining. Refrain from discussing business unless your South Korean counterpart brings up the subject. Chopsticks are usually used in most homes but silverware are used in larger restaurants. All foods, even fruits, are eaten with utensils – never with fingers. Pass and receive any items with right hand only. It is considered polite to refill the glass or soy sauce bowl of someone sitting next to you.

When eating foods with bones or shells you will be offered a spare plate on which to place the leftovers. If a plate is not offered the bones or shells are placed on the table, never back onto your plate. Leave chopsticks in the chopstick rest, if provided, otherwise, leave them on the table when you are finished eating. Never leave chopsticks standing in food.

In general introducing yourself to others isn’t done. Wait for the proper introductions to be made by a third party. You’ll be able to tell who the senior member is on board, since he is usually the first to offer his hand. The junior member is usually the first to bow upon introductions. Bow upon initial introductions and upon departure. Physical contact, during conversation should never be initiated by you. When laughing or talking keep a calm, quiet voice to keep from appearing aggressive or brass. Any criticism, to anyone, for any reason, should be done in private. A smile doesn’t always mean something good. In this culture smiling can be a sign of embarrassment or to mask anger.

Men should always cross their legs so that the soles of their shoes are pointing downward. Never point the bottoms of your feet at anyone, like when placing one ankle on the opposite knee. Do not cross legs in front of an elder authority figure.

To call someone to you extend your arm with palm down and move fingers up and down. Never use just the index finger – considered crude in this society. Cover your mouth if you must yawn. Do not use a toothpick in front of others. It’s a good idea to wear a face mask if you have a cold. Others do not want your sickness and may look down upon you if you fail to protect them from it.

In any country it’s important to follow the general rules of society. Failure to do so can ruin a business relationship quickly. Usually the residents of a foreign country understand that you are a foreigner and are willing to make some concessions but taking the time to understand their ways will impress them greatly.

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