Cultural Business Traditions in Korea

Seoul has grown into a major city for business, as evidenced by its glittering skyline.
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In the bustling, modern city of Seoul, South Korea's capital, many major corporations have staked out offices to create an Eastern presence for their companies. Western law firms and tech companies, as well as franchise businesses such as restaurants, have established themselves in this newly global city. As with all cultures, South Korea comes with its own set of business etiquette and customs.

1 General Values

As with many other Asian cultures, Koreans place a premium on conformity with the group. At the same time, Koreans also borrow the Confucian idea of respect for authority, so in business, the needs of the many are highlighted over the needs of the individual, as determined by and in collaboration with the most senior figures. Koreans also pay close attention to a cultural concept called "kibun," a word which has no direct English translation. It means something like "saving face" or "pride," and savvy business professionals will carefully watch to make sure they haven't negatively affected the kibun of business partners, managers or subordinates.

2 Meeting Planning

In advance of a meeting in South Korea, most professionals expect to receive an agenda in both English and Korean, if working with a Western company. This demonstrates respect toward the group's need for preparation. Koreans value punctuality, and may view a late arrival as a sign of disrespect. When entering a meeting, the arriving party will greet the person of highest status or rank first, then the oldest members of the group, then will move down to greet more subordinate employees. Dark, conservative colors are typically worn for business.

3 Networking

Koreans generally expect to be introduced to new contacts via a third party, ensuring that they will meet individuals of similar rank. When being introduced, after a bow and possibly a handshake, company members present business cards to one another. Business cards are presented with both hands, and when one is received, the recipient carefully reads and acknowledges the information on the card before putting it away. Failure to do so, or writing on the card in the presence of the card's owner, indicates disrespect.

4 Negotiations

In South Korea, businesspersons see contracts as a starting point for negotiation, rather than a firm agreement. They often value the relationship with the other company rather than the letter of the law. It's also rare to receive a direct "no" about anything -- rather, the culture generally prefers a demurral or an indication that one party would like to discuss things further. These flexible arrangements may confuse Westerners at first, but they make sense in the context of the Korean emphasis on harmony within the community.

Kat Stromquist received a master's in creative writing from the University of New Orleans. She writes about interior design and lifestyle issues for a variety of print and web outlets.