Be Prepared: South Korea Business Etiquette

South Korea is an increasingly modern country with a trillion dollar economy and leads the world in DSL connections per person. But despite its modernness, Western business leaders will find that knowledge of South Korea’s traditions and customs will go a long way.

Show a sincere interest in the culture, and take time to learn at least a few polite social words, such as gam-sa-ham-ni-da for thank you and an-yong-ha-say-yo for hello.

Making the connection

The “cold call” will get you nowhere in South Korea; a country where personal connections still are meaningful. If you have no personal connections, a local liaison that does will help you succeed. Alumni networking, particularly, among graduates of prestigious Korean universities, are a valuable source of business connections. If you have no acquaintances there – how about searching those “six degrees of separation” connections: Friends of friends that can serve as your introduction to your South Korean counterpart. Think you don’t have that? Check Facebook and see who you are playing the social games there with. You might be surprised at how far your connections reach.

Follow the rituals…religiously

The etiquette needed for a successful business meeting in Korea is rigidly ritualistic. Korean culture places a high value on certainty, structure, conformity and teamwork as well as respect for authority. Business meetings are formal and tightly choreographed with many rituals which, if ignored, will break your chances of making the deal. Here are a few:

  • It is important to acknowledge both status and age. Greet the people with the highest status first, followed by the oldest person in the room.
  • When dealing with Westerners, Korean businessmen will give a light handshake sometimes followed by a bow. When shaking hands the person with the highest rank offers his hand first.
  • You will know immediately if your Korean client prefers bowing. In this case the junior person is expected to bow first.
  • Offer your business card with both hands and a slight bow. Give them time to read the card. If offered a card, receive it with your right hand and take time to read it. To do otherwise would be considered disrespectful.

Do you know how to sing?

Business and social get-togethers are often mixed at the Korean version of a Karaoke bar – known locally as “no-rae-bang”. The videos usually include the English words so be prepared to sing at least one song at your host’s urging.

Common sense etiquette when working with any foreign company includes sending ahead translated copies of any material you are going to present to your prospective client / partners. This shows that you respect their culture and are willing to go the extra mile to work with them. Have your business card translated as well.

Finally, when leaving, be sure to bow. Waving in Korea means “Come here…”!