Managing in South Korea
Follow the Traditions and Customs of This Culturally-Rich Nation
From fast-paced, high-tech cities to beautiful tranquil mountains and national parks, South Korea is filled with opportunities for both tourists and business visitors. Its historical traditions contrast with its modern social scene, and its particular fondness for karaoke.
The country's rich culture makes for a terrific place to live, work and play. Manners, hierarchy and ceremony all form an intrinsic part of that culture, and they need to be respected if you are to be successful there.
In this article, we will explore the etiquette that you will need to follow to socialize and work successfully with your new South Korean team.
Welcome to South Korea
As its name suggests, South Korea sits below its neighbour, North Korea. It is a peninsula with the Yellow Sea to the west and the Sea of Japan to the east. It is separated from nearby Japan by the Korea Strait. It is Asia's fourth-largest economy and the 11th largest globally. The country boasts a booming technology industry, has the fastest broadband in the world, and is home to several big global brands, including Samsung, LG and Hyundai. Its capital city, Seoul, is a hub for business and commerce, and is home to 10 million people – a fifth of South Korea's total population.
South Korea has no official religion, but many citizens follow the philosophical teachings of Confucianism, which encourages social and familial harmony.
Since the end of the Korean war in 1953, political tensions have remained high between South and North Korea. There are nationwide civil emergency exercises several times a year, and your organization will likely have an emergency plan in place in the event of a crisis.
This article is intended as a general guide only. It is important to use your own best judgment in relation to the unique needs of your South Korean colleagues and to particular situations that may arise.
Meeting and Greeting
There is a lot of ceremony involved in meeting and greeting in South Korea. Brush up on your bowing technique, as you will be expected to bow and shake hands with those you meet. At the same time, be sure to give them some space. Physical contact is generally unwelcome and avoided.
South Koreans have a great respect for hierarchy. This means that your age, position, education, and marital status will all determine your status. If you have seniority, you are expected to shake hands when you meet someone, while junior employees should bow. Korean women, however, prefer to nod instead of shake hands, although it's OK for women of other nationalities to offer their hand to Korean men.
Remember to display humility at meetings. If you're offered a seat at the head of the table, for example, protest that this is not necessary (at least at first), and be sure to stand up when someone older than you enters the room.
You'll likely be offered tea at the start of a meeting. Accept it with thanks, and spend some time chatting informally to your team before getting down to business. Socializing with team members outside of work is also a good idea, and karaoke – one of the country's favorite pastimes – plays a big part in this. Don't be afraid to join in the fun and sing along! It will only help to strengthen your relationships with your new colleagues.
Exchanging small gifts in the workplace is commonplace, and it's considered polite to return the favor if you receive a gift. Don't be surprised, however, if your gift is first refused and then accepted – this is a gesture of humility. Use both hands when giving and receiving gifts and, however much you might want to, don't open your gift the moment you receive it. It's more polite to wait until the giver is out of sight, so keep it respectfully in front of you until then.
See our article on Gifts in the Workplace for further advice on gift-giving. Take care to understand anti-corruption laws and to respect your company's policy on corporate gift giving. For example, in the U.S. the legal distinction between a gift and a bribe is not completely clear. See the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) for more information. In the U.K., the Bribery Act 2010 explains what constitutes a bribe in Britain, and for any British company operating overseas, regardless of location.
South Korean names follow a specific order, which can be very different to other countries' naming preferences. The surname comes first, followed by a two-part given name – the first of which is shared by everyone in a family of the same generation. So, for example, if someone is called Kim Gimhae Eun-Mi, her first name is Eun-Mi, Gimhae is her shared generational name, and Kim is her surname.
It is also common for South Koreans to reverse or anglicize their names when they are communicating with people from other countries.
You should never use a person's first name unless he or she invites you to do so, and always use his or her title.
Exchanging business cards comes with its very own ceremony, and can play a key role in building relationships. Here are some top tips on how to give and receive business cards:
- Carry a box of smart business cards with you at all times, and make sure that they have a Korean translation of your details on one side.
- Give and receive business cards with both hands.
- When you receive a business card, study it carefully and place it face up on the table in front of you, as a mark of respect.
- Avoid writing on a business card, unless someone clearly indicates that you should.
- Have a presentable file or case to store business cards in.
Managing and Negotiating
Whether you are in a boardroom meeting or socializing at the local karaoke bar, build trust with your new colleagues by taking the time to listen to what they have to say. Try to avoid dominating conversations, as this may appear impolite.
Their culture favors harmony, so South Koreans tend to avoid saying "No" directly. Instead, your team members might suck air in through their teeth, use the word "maybe," or remain silent to show that they disagree with something. They will also avoid tackling issues head on, to protect their pride (known as kibun). If this happens, try phrasing questions in different ways, asking if they need more information, or paying attention to their body language to gain a better understanding of their thought process.
If you're chatting to your team and everything suddenly goes quiet, don't worry. Periods of silence are a common and acceptable part of conversations in South Korea.
Ultimately, your team members will expect you to have the final say in decisions, and, once negotiations are agreed, things often move fast. You should therefore respond quickly once a decision has been made, otherwise you may risk looking as though you lack interest.
Never leave a document on someone's desk or chair for him to find later. This is considered rude. Instead, you should give it to him personally.
See our article on Wibbeke's Geoleadership Model® to learn more on cross-cultural leadership.
Food and Drink
Hospitality will undoubtedly play a key role in building relationships with your South Korean team, and you will likely eat most of your meals with them. Here are some important food and drink do's and don'ts to remember:
- It is traditional for the host or the youngest person present to pay for the meal. In fact, sharing the cost of a meal is almost unheard of.
- Accept an invitation to a colleague's house for dinner without hesitation. Once you arrive at her home, remove your shoes and point them towards the front door as a mark of respect.
- Do not eat food while walking in the street.
- Always use chopsticks, and place them back on the table – not on the bowl or dish – once you finish your meal.
- At formal dinners, offer to pour drinks for other people but do not pour your own – someone else will do it for you. Support one arm with the other as you pour.
- Wait for the oldest person at the table to pick up his chopsticks first before you start eating.
- Don't hold your rice or soup bowl in your hand during the meal – leave it on the table.
- Stand up when an older person enters the room or gets up from the dinner table.
- Don't eat everything on your plate, as this might offend your host by signaling that he didn't give you enough food.
Drinking is considered an important part of South Korea's social scene. In fact, the country has the highest rate of alcohol consumption in the world, with the average person consuming 14 shots of hard liquor every week – compared to six in Russia and three in the U.S. It is therefore highly likely that you'll be invited out for after-work drinks at some point during your stay. Usually, only a junior member of the group foots the bill, which means that, if you are the most senior member, you need to make an extra effort to get to the cashier first and politely ignore any protests from your team.
The official language is Korean, although most people can speak English too. It's worth learning at least a few basic Korean words and phrases before you arrive to show respect to your hosts:
|Hello (general greeting)||annyeong-hasimnikka|
|How are you?||eotteohke jinaeseyo?|
|I'm fine thanks||jaljinaeyo|
|Can you speak English?||Yeongeo halsu isseumnikka|
|What's your name?||sungham ee uttoke daesipnika?|
|My name is ___||je ireum-eun ___ imnida|
|I don't understand||moreugesseumnida|
Taxi drivers tend to speak little or no English. So, it's a good idea to have your destination written in Korean, and to carry a map when travelling by taxi.
Foreign visitors to South Korea must obtain the appropriate work visas. These are specific to the type of work that you do so, if you change your job while in the country, you may need to apply for a different visa.
Working hours should not exceed 40 hours per week, with another 12 hours for overtime. In practice, however, many people work beyond this limit.
Employees who do not miss a day of work in a full year are entitled to a 15-day paid vacation and an extra day for each two years of service, up to a maximum of 25 days.
New mothers are entitled to 90 days' maternity leave (120 days for twins) and at least 60 of those days (75 days for twins) are paid by the employer. Fathers can have five days of paternity leave, and at least three of these must be paid. Women with infants under the age of one are entitled to at least 30 minutes' nursing time twice a day, and the company must provide suitable facilities.
Medical and dental care in South Korea is usually of a good standard, but can be expensive. Make sure that you get comprehensive insurance before visiting the country, to cover any costs that you might have during your stay.
South Korean employers are not obliged to provide leave on public holidays, and those that fall on a weekend do not carry over to the following week. However, company policy usually stipulates that these be classed as paid days off.
The main public holidays in South Korea are:
- New Year's Day – January 1.
- Korean New Year – Date changes each year (February 16 in 2018; February 5 in 2019.)
- Independence (Declaration) Day – March 1.
- Children's Day – May 5.
- Buddha's Birthday – Date changes each year (May 22 in 2018; May 12 in 2019.)
- Memorial Day – June 6.
- Liberation Day – August 15.
- Mid-Autumn Festival – Dates change each year (September 24 in 2018; September 13 in 2019.)
- National Foundation Day – October 3.
- Hangeul Day (commemorative day marking the creation of the Korean alphabet) – October 9.
- Christmas Day – December 25.
South Korea is one of the most highly-educated and technologically-advanced countries in the world. Manners are important, so make sure that you are respectful, and can demonstrate a good knowledge of the country's social and business etiquette.
Work to build trust with your colleagues as soon as you arrive. Establish your credibility by respecting the distinct ceremonies and customs that are involved in everyday situations, from meeting and greeting your new colleagues for the first time to giving and receiving business cards, and knowing when it's appropriate to buy in a round of drinks.
Most importantly, join in with the fun! Socializing is an important part of the work culture in South Korea, so always accept invitations to drinks, dinner and, especially, karaoke.