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Doing Business in South Korea: Managing Cultural Differences

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Doing Business in South Korea: Managing Cultural Differences

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Koreans will not expect you to be an expert on the nuances of their culture, but they will appreciate a show of interest in matters that are important to them. Often what is most valued by Koreans involves the ability to build influential relationships and skilfully navigate hierarchy

Working with the Koreans is very much about personal relationships. Be sure to emphasise the value of relationships and talk about mutual cooperation. There are several dos and don’ts in dealing with Koreans. Certain rules govern the presentation of business cards, for example, and the giving of gifts, while meals and even drinking also have a strict procedure.

The Koreans are highly sociable people and entertaining and being entertained is an integral part of the business culture. Despite the rowdy after-work drinking scene, Koreans are polite and formal in everyday business and there are many rituals governing the etiquette.

Koreans have a very strong work ethic and will work hard as a team to complete tasks. Western managers are often surprised to find that their Korean team will not leave the building until they do in the evenings.

Be aware of the importance hierarchy and position play in Korean business culture. Western managers in Korea may have trouble adapting to the strong hierarchy within companies. The situation is changing slowly and some Korean companies are trying to introduce flatter structures, having seen how their competitors in the West operate, and how much more efficient their decision-making process can be. But change is slow and inconsistent.

Here are some key tips to help you work effectively with the Koreans:

1. “Kibun” is a person’s sense of personal well-being and dignity or ‘face’. It is essential to avoid hurting someone’s kibun.
2. The Koreans are patient, industrious and traditional.
3. Society is hierarchical – you need to respect local attitudes to age, power, and status.
4. Formality is expected and respected. In initial meetings, make sure you are comfortable with the many local ‘rituals’ of business etiquette.
5. Business relationships are at least as important as the deal itself. Third party introductions and referrals can be very helpful in setting a trusting climate.
6. Many Korean businessmen have studied in the west, so they are well versed in western ways, although in a negotiating situation, they may revert to traditional Korean tactics.
7. In order to achieve a clear understanding of issues, Koreans can sometimes ask questions in a very direct manner. These are usually for additional clarification and are not intended as a ‘tactic’ to unsettle you.

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