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Doing Business in Korea: Business Etiquette

Developing an understanding of Korean culture and its influence on business practices is essential to your firm's success in Korea. While polite Canadian manners will almost always be recognised as courteous behaviour - and Koreans do not expect foreigners to be experts in their culture - efforts to learn about Korean customs and language will be well received, and will assist you in building stronger business relationships.

Confucian Influence

Koreans hold to firm Confucian traditions, which emphasize respect for education, authorities and those who are older. Although modern Koreans may not adhere to Confucian principles as rigidly, these principles continue to underpin many customs and business practices.

Given this Confucian influence, Koreans intuitively establish hierarchical relationships based upon the age, position, status and educational background of other people relative to themselves. Do not be surprised by questions about your age, marital status or educational background. Although these questions are considered by many Canadians to be personal in nature - and unrelated to business - they are a tool used by Korean businesspeople to place you within this hierarchical structure.

Given the importance and value that Confucianism places on relationships, beyond their family, many Koreans are loyal to others associated with their own company, alma mater, hometown or place of worship. Koreans are comfortable doing business with people to whom they feel personally connected. Keeping this in mind, mutual intermediaries can be very helpful in establishing business connections; cold calls will only rarely produce results.

Korean Names

A Korean name consists of a family name, usually of one syllable, plus a given name, usually of two syllables. The family name comes first (Kim Tae-Woo, for example). Until one gets to be on very good terms with a counterpart, it is best to use the family name preceded by a title such as Mr., Mrs. or Miss, whether speaking directly to the counterpart or speaking of him or her to another Korean. When addressing a counterpart in settings that call for great respect or formality, you should use your counterpart's formal title and surname (Chairman Lee, for example). Some Koreans who have spent significant time overseas may have adopted a western first name, and prefer that it is used over their family name. Some Koreans view their name as a very personal thing, so a suggestion to work on a first-name basis may be slow to be offered.

Meetings

For appointments, it is considered polite to arrive on-time or just a few minutes early. Koreans generally keep a full schedule, which early arrivals can disrupt. Arriving late is not recommended, however, as it can be viewed as a snub by your host. If traffic or other problems delay you, call ahead to inform your host that you are running late.

At an initial meeting, be prepared to begin with some small talk, including discussion on whether you are making a first visit to Korea, your impressions of the country, as well as your family, favourite sports (golf is a clear favourite among Koreans) and other interests.

You should also be prepared to socialize with your Korean business partners on a personal level outside of regular business hours. It remains extremely common to build business relationships through informal social gatherings that involve heavy drinking and eating. While it is not unusual to discuss business during these social gatherings, they are primarily aimed at building a stronger personal relationship that will underpin your business dealings.

Business Cards

The exchange of business cards is helpful in determining rank within the hierarchical structure, and allows Koreans to quickly determine their counterpart's position and title. The exchange of business cards is important, and plays an essential role in initial meetings. While still standing, Canadian businesspeople should politely hand a business card over with two hands, and receive one in return. Do not simply drop the card into a pocket upon receipt, but instead take a few seconds to review names and titles. If you are sitting down, place it on the table in front of you for the duration of the meeting. Koreans will place cards on the table in the order of the seating plan, a sensible practice that allows names to be kept straight during meetings.

Canadian businesspeople travelling in Korea should carry business cards that include Korean text. At the same time, given sensitivities surrounding Korea's historical relationship with Japan, avoid exchanging business cards that include Japanese text while in Korea.

Bowing and Handshakes

Koreans are accustomed to bowing to those senior to them as a form of greeting and to show respect. The junior person initiates the bow, bending from the waist to an angle of between 30 and 45 degrees from vertical. The more senior person will acknowledge by returning a less accentuated bow. Bowing in Korea is not as pronounced as in other countries, such as Japan.

As when exchanging business cards, it is considered polite to give and receive articles using two hands rather than one. This is carried over into the handshake by extended the right hand and cupping the left hand below and around the right elbow. While it is considered polite for Canadian businesspeople to extend a simple handshake when greeting and taking leave, they should not be surprised by a two-handed handshake and a bow during the course of an initial meeting.

Assistance

If you have further questions about business etiquette in Korea, or require other advice and assistance in the Korean market, please contact a member of our team.

September 2015

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