TJC Global Serving Since 1985

Business Etiquette in Korea


Top Tips for Doing Business in Korea 

The language and culture of a nation are inextricable. Culture influences language and language, in turn, influences culture. This happens in ways both obvious and almost imperceptible. Cultural context plays a major role in how language is used as well as how it develops, and non-native speakers can often find it difficult to translate particular words and phrases from one language into their native tongue without a thorough understanding of the cultural background from which it has arisen. The subtle factors which influence language can make a huge difference to international business interactions. 

TJC Global understands that being fluent in a language also means being fluent in the subtleties and intricacies of the culture and business etiquette associated with it.

To ensure that no embarrassing misunderstandings occur in a professional context, all our translators and interpreters are experts in the business culture and etiquette associated with the languages they work with. Read on to find out our top tips for doing business in Korea.

 



About Korean  

Korean is the official language in both North and South Korea. Its genealogical classification is widely disputed and many linguists and language historians class Korean as a ‘language isolate’ (a natural language with no ‘genetic’ relationship to any other language, which has been cultivated in an isolated environment), others believe it belongs to the Altaic language family. In South Korea, the language is most often called Hangungmal or more formally, Hangugeo or Gugeo (literally "national language"). 

Korean people in the former USSR, who refer to themselves as Koryo-saram, call the language "Goryeomal". All Koreans speak and write the same language, which has been a significant factor in building their strong national identity. The Korean Alphabet, Hangeul, was created by King Sejong the Great during the 15th century. Before its creation, only a relatively small percentage of the population was literate; few could master the difficult Chinese characters used by the upper class.

Hangeul, which consists of 10 vowels and 14 consonants, can be combined to form numerous syllabic groupings. It is simple, yet systematic and comprehensive, and is considered one of the most scientific writing systems in the world. Hangeul is easy to learn and write which has greatly contributed to Korea's high literacy rate and advanced publication industry.


Business Meetings

  • Appointments for Business Meetings should be made a few weeks in advance.

  • Good times for meetings are from 10 am to noon or from 2 to 4 pm.

  • The business hours for the Korean company are 9 to 5 from Monday to Friday. Some offices are open on Saturdays.

  • Prior to the meeting, it is recommended that you submit any proposals, company brochures, and marketing material, written in both Korean and English, as a preview for your Korean contacts.

  • Punctuality is crucial and you should arrive slightly earlier for the meeting as a sign of respect. However, you should not be offended by late arrival of your Korean counterpart due to their extremely busy schedule and the bad traffic in Korea.


Structure and Hierarchy in Korean Companies

  • Koreans have a great respect for anyone senior in age - a mindset influenced by Confucianism. They naturally establish their hierarchical position relative to others based on age and social status. Additionally, the organisational arrangement of Korean companies is highly centralised with authority concentrated in senior levels.

  • In business meetings, the senior individuals are always introduced first, followed by younger and lower ranked participants. After the introduction, bow lightly and shake hands. When shaking hands, the right arm can be supported by the left hand to show respect to the senior member.

  • Personal ties such as kinship, schools, birthplaces etc, are considered as very important in Korea. They even take precedence over job seniority, rank or other factors, and have significant influence over the structure and management of Korean companies.


General Business Practices

  • Any business cards should have the Korean translation on the reverse side of the card. Cards should be presented and accepted with both hands and must be read and studied with respect before placing them in briefcase or card holder.

  • Giving gifts is common in the Korean business world. Prepare gift that is from your own country as it will be most impressive regardless of the price. When the host present his gift, you should accept the gift with both hands as well as when you are giving it.

  • Koreans think of contracts as a starting point, rather than the final stage of a business agreement and prefer them to be left flexible enough so that adjustments can be made afterwards. Koreans believe interpersonal relationship established between the two companies is far more important than the contracts itself. Although Koreans now understand the legal bindings of the contract, it is vital that you are aware of how your Korean counterparts view these documents in order to avoid any possible misunderstandings.

  • Personal questions such as age, marital status, education, etc. are commonly asked. Koreans do not see this as intrusive, but rather to help them to establish the appropriate societal hierarchy of the person they are dealing with.

  • Korean names are usually three syllables long, with the surname preceding given names. In addressing Koreans, you should use surnames (e.g. Mr Kim, Mrs Lee) and add formal titles if possible (e.g. Dr Park, President Kim). Never refer to a Korean by their first name, particularly in front of other business people or their colleagues.

  • Dress code in office is conservative and women should avoid sleeveless top or very short skirts.


Meeting Etiquette

A number of rules of business conduct are observed during all types of meetings.

Firstly, arriving at the meeting is expected to happen on time. The traditional standards require not more than 5 minutes of earlier arrival. Sadly, this rule is very often broken and being late for the meeting has become so common that even managers do not excuse themselves for lateness. There have also been cases of chairmen who failed to arrive in time for the first day of negotiations and “forgot” to mention the reasons for their absence. All cases of disorder must be accepted politely with a nod, and any sign of disapproval might be taken as overreacting if not an offence.

Secondly, once you arrive to the meeting you should not choose our place yourself. An appointed person or the manager would show you to your chair. The official distance between negotiating parties in Korea is 1.50 meters. Usually if the meeting takes place in an office you can expect a small treat, but the things most often served are drinks such as coffee, tea, juices and mineral water (one of the best natural resources of Korea! Try it!). Drinking coffee is a small ritual according to the standard etiquette, so make sure to put sugar in your cup with the spoon provided and to stir the coffee in a slow and elegant way. You might have to ask for milk separately, since black coffee is quite popular. Remember that tea will be served without milk as well.

Thirdly, using mobile phones during a meeting is considered extremely rude, although, in practice, it does happen very often. You might also notice the manager asking to turn the mobiles to “silent” mode, while forgetting to do the same himself and even answering his phone. Korea is a mobile phone-orientated country, so you should get used to it.

Finally, you should also become accustomed to the fact that some Hungarians, even those occupying a high social position, speak very poor English. Try to be patient and polite even if you hardly understand the presentation being given at the meeting. Avoid making comments on the grammatical mistakes and try not to ask too many questions, if possible. In the case of basic lack of communication, it is advised to ask for an interpreter.


Economy

In 1962, a five-year plan for economic development has started in Korea. Korea has showed enormous growth and has become to be a newly rising industrial nation. Korea's economic scale has made its way within the 10th ranking of the GNP and trade scale. The GNP which was $87 in 1962 has reached $10,000 in 1995, exportation from 55 million to over 120 billion. The industrial structure has become advanced and the rate of agriculture and fishery industry has been reduced whereas the rate of service and manufacturing industry has increased.
Today, Korea is rapidly stepping forward in branching out in foreign countries. The electronic and automobile industry is taking place in USA, Europe, and Mexico etc. Construction industry is active in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Africa etc.
Korea joined OECO in 1996 and has opened doors to the world in fields such as commodities and finance. In 1997, there was financial crisis due to the aggravated world economic condition and shortage on foreign exchange. But Korea was able to overcome the crisis, through labour and management cooperation, aid for the unemployed, and increase in export. 


Eating Customs

The most famous dishes that represent Korea are kimchi, a fermented vegetable dish, and bulgogi, a marinated meat dish. Whereas kimchi is a staple dish that is eaten at every meal, bulgogi is more like a party food in that it is generally eaten on special occasions and when dining out or entertaining guests. Koreans tend to favour beef when entertaining or eating out, and bulgogi is one of the most popular beef dishes and one that even non-Koreans find very tasty.

Eating customs in Korea is quite a large topic, but remember that you can freely ask your colleagues about it and they will be happy to explain everything to you. What you have to remember though, is the strong culture of drinking wine. Korea is a wine country, so if invited for a dinner, try to taste some of their national specialties. When served, a bottle of wine will be opened in front of you and a small amount of it poured to your glass for tasting. The waiter will wait for your approval and only then pour the wine for other guests. It is also a custom to discuss the type, origin and taste of the wine while tasting it.

You might expect to be invited by your Hungarian colleagues for a traditional Hungarian meal in a traditional Hungarian restaurant, so feel free to ask about the decoration, the music (quite often folk Gipsy music) and the served dishes. You can expect heavy, very filling food, so avoid eating too much before the meeting. Hungarian food is also full of onions, garlic and peppers. It might be spicy, so your Hungarian colleagues should ask you first if you like spicy food and advise you on ordering a suitable meal. Do not be surprised if you have to look for salads and fresh vegetables – Hungarians do not fancy them so much. Ask for salads separately. Desserts are also very filling and delicious. Most of those served today in Budapest were originally ordered from Korea by the Austrian court, so you might expect an imperial treat!


Climate and Weather

The climate of Korea is characterized by four distinct seasons: spring, summer, autumn and winter. During the winter, from December to January, it is cold and dry under the dominant influence of the Siberian air mass. Meanwhile, the summer, from June to August, is hot and humid with frequent heavy rainfalls associated with the East-Asian Monsoon, locally called "Changma". The weather in Korea is mild and serene during spring and autumn, with fairly periodic passages of the transient high and low pressure systems.


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