Korea is one of the most homogeneous countries in the world, racially and linguistically. It has its own culture, language, dress and cuisine, separate and distinct from its neighboring countries. Hard work, filial piety and modesty are characteristics esteemed by Koreans. They are proud of their traditional culture and their modern economic success. Education is highly valued as the path to status, money and success.
Meeting and Greeting
The bow is the traditional Korean greeting, although it is often accompanied by a handshake among men. To show respect when shaking hands, support your right forearm with your left hand.
Korean women usually nod slightly and will not shake hands with Western men. Western women may offer their hand to a Korean man.
Bow when departing. Younger people wave (move their arm from side to side).
Names and Titles
It is considered very impolite to address a Korean with his or her given name. Address Koreans using appropriate professional titles until specifically invited by your host or colleagues to use their given names.
Americans should address a Korean with Mr., Mrs., Miss + family name; however, never address a high-ranking person or superior in this manner.
Korean names are the opposite of Western names with the family name first, followed by the two-part given name. The first of the two given names is shared by everyone of the same generation in the family, and the second is the individual’s given name. Example: Lee (Family) + Dong (Shared Given) + Sung (Given). Dong Sung is the individual’s given name. Address him as Mr. Lee or Lee Sonsaengnim (which means “teacher”).
Koreans consider it a personal violation to be touched by someone who is not a relative or close friend. Avoid touching, patting or back slapping a Korean.
Direct eye contact between junior and senior businesspeople should be avoided. This is seen as impolite or even as a challenge.
Do not cross your legs or stretch your legs out straight in front of you. Keep your feet on the floor, never on a desk or chair.
Always pass and receive objects with your right hand (supported by the left hand at the wrist or forearm) or with two hands.
To beckon someone, extend your arm, palm down, and move your fingers in a scratching motion. Never point with your index finger.
Koreans expect Westerners to be punctual for social occasions and business meetings. Call if you will be delayed. However, you may be kept waiting up to a half hour. This is not a sign of disrespect, but reflects the pressure of time on Korean executives.
Professionals meeting for the first time usually exchange business cards. Present your card and receive your colleague’s card with both hands.
Building trust and relationships is vital to establishing a successful business relationship. This requires patience. Koreans prefer to do business with people they know.
The first meeting is to establish trust, so business should not be discussed. Be formal in meetings until the Korean delegation loosens up.
Negotiations are generally long and require several trips. Be prepared for business meetings to go well beyond business hours.
Koreans generally start negotiations at an unreasonable position and prepare to compromise. Koreans are tough negotiators and admire a firm, persistent negotiator, but refrain from being too aggressive.
A low, deep bow from Koreans at the end of a meeting indicates a successful meeting. A quick, short parting bow could mean dissatisfaction with meetings. Send a meeting review outlining all discussions and agreements to your Korean counterpart after you leave Korea. Make several visits during negotiations and after business is established.
“Yes” is not necessarily “yes.” Koreans avoid saying “no.” Try to phrase questions in a manner that doesn’t require a “yes” or “no” answer. Example: Instead of saying “Could we sign the agreement by next Friday?” say “When is the earliest date that we could expect to sign this agreement?”
Dining and Entertainment
Sharing a dinner is vital to building friendships that foster trust. Your business success is directly related to your social relationships.
Do not pour your own drink, but do offer to pour others’. It is common to trade and fill each other’s cup. To refuse is an insult. Women pour men’s drinks, but never another woman’s drink. A woman may pour her own drink. Leave some drink in your glass if you don’t want a refill.
Wherever you see a “No Tipping” sign, do not tip. Koreans find tipping offensive, although tipping is now becoming expected in Western hotels.
Always allow your host to seat you. The seat of honor is the seat looking at the front door. If you are seated in the seat of honor, it is polite to protest slightly.
Koreans do not like to talk a lot during dinner. Periods of silence are common and appreciated at a dinner. The meal usually comes before socializing at a dinner party.
It is polite to pass or accept food or drink with your right hand while your left hand supports your forearm/wrist.
The person who invites pays the bill for everyone. However, it is polite to offer to pay. When two people are dining, usually the younger person pays for the older person.
Prepare to sing a solo number after dinner, no matter what kind of voice you have. Any song is acceptable, as long as you sing with spirit.
After dinner, the host may invite his guests to go drinking. Don’t refuse this invitation.
Koreans dress well, and you should dress accordingly to show respect for them. A formal suit and tie is almost always appropriate. Koreans dress up for city activities, especially in Seoul.
Women dress modestly. Prepare to sit on the floor; avoid straight, tight skirts.
Gift giving is very common in Korea. Offer and receive a gift with both hands. Wrapped gifts are never opened in the presence of the giver.
Reciprocate with a gift of similar value when receiving a gift from your Korean colleague. Koreans like regional United States gifts and Indian/Western artifacts.
Wrap your gift nicely. Bright colors are preferred for wrapping gifts. Yellow and red or green stripes are a traditional Korean wrapping paper design. Avoid wrapping gifts in dark colors or red.
Always bring a small gift for the hostess when invited to someone’s home. Give: small gift, candy, cakes, cookies, flowers, fruit. Do not give liquor to a woman.
It is common to exchange gifts at the first business meeting. Allow the host to present his gift first.
Give: liquor (good quality scotch), fruit, desk accessories, small mementos, gifts from France or Italy (which often indicate status).
Do not give: expensive gifts (Koreans will feel obligated to reciprocate with a gift of equal value), knives or scissors (they signify “cutting off” a relationship), green headwear, gifts with red writing (denotes death) or gifts in a set of four (denotes death).
Never use words like “fellow,” “guy,” “this man” or “that man.” This is considered demeaning.
Koreans are not Chinese. They are distinct from other Asians in food, language and culture.
Expect Koreans to ask personal questions. This is viewed as showing a polite interest in your life.
Deny a compliment. Don’t say “thank you.” It is impolite and shows a lack of humility.
Never expect Koreans to admit to not knowing an answer when questioned. They may give an incorrect answer or an answer they think you would like to hear to make you feel good or to save face.
Don’t talk about Koreans or their customs or culture within earshot of a Korean, even if you are saying good things. Do not talk about politics.
Especially for Women
Foreign women may have difficulty doing business in Korea. Although women are becoming more accepted in the Korean businessplace, Korean men generally prefer to negotiate with men.
Korean women seldom shake hands. A Western woman can offer her hand to a Korean man, but should not to a Korean woman.
Foreign businesswomen should always act elegant, refined and very “feminine.” Laughing and loud talking are frowned upon.
Generally, women wait for Korean men to make the first move.