Business & Travel Etiquette for Korea
Every year Korea becomes more and more modern, but it is important to recognize that modern does not equal Western. 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. Koreans generally appreciate a foreigner’s effort in expressing a thank you (gam-sa-ham-ni-da) or a hello (an-yang-ha-say-yo) in the Korean language.
For Koreans, relationships are all important; “cold calls” don’t work–introductions are crucial! Koreans want to do business with people with whom they have formed a personal connection or whereby a mutual intermediary has made an introduction. As alumni contacts are a major source of networking in Korea, a particularly well-connected Korean will have attended a prestigious Korean university like Yonsei University, Seoul National University, Korea University or Ehwa Women’s University.
Avoid the use of slang and idiom; remember, you want the other side to understand you. Speak at a moderate rate of speed and use correct grammatical English; do not try to speak “broken English” in the hopes of communicating more easily, it simply does NOT work. Where possible, provide written materials and/or copies of your presentations. During a verbal presentation, it may be advisable to repeat key points for emphasis. If necessary, use the services of a professional or experienced interpreter. Remember, interpretation will at least double the amount of time required to deliver your presentation.
Punctuality is appreciated and business meetings should start and finish on time. The senior-most individuals are always introduced first, followed by younger and lower ranked participants. Questions of a personal nature may be asked, particularly concerning age, marital status, education, etc. These questions are not thought to be impolite, but rather to help the Koreans to recognize the appropriate social level and speech forms (degree of formality) that they should use when speaking. Since a consensus is important, there will usually be rather lengthy discussions before decisions are made. As a result, business negotiations will usually take much longer when compared to Western business cultures, so patience will be necessary.
For Koreans, it is considered to be polite to wait for the eldest person at the table to begin eating before everyone else starts. Likewise, one does not excuse him or her self from the table before the eldest person finishes. It is a bad breach of etiquette to pour your own drink.
Business Card Do’s and Don’ts for Korea
The exchange of business cards is very important and a means by which Koreans learn about the name, position and status of the other person. Koreans observe a very strict hierarchical code, where Koreans will generally meet to discuss business with persons of the same, parallel rank. Businesspersons should always have their (preferably bilingual) business cards at the ready and should treat the exchange of Korean counterpart’s card with respect. (It is a sign of respect to receive and present items with both hands, followed in business etiquette by passing and receiving a card with the right hand. One should never give a card, or anything else for that matter, with the left hand as it shows disrespect.) For historical reasons, Chinese characters, which Koreans can generally understand, are regarded as more sophisticated. As such, a business card written in Chinese characters can serve for a business trip to Korea, China and Japan.
Do exchange cards one-by-one, individual-to-individual; use both hands if practical.
Do read and acknowledge the full name and title of the other person. In Korea, the surname is given first followed by a one or two syllable given name. First names are rarely used except among very close friends. Even when meeting a large group of people, it is considered polite to take a moment to read each individual’s name card upon exchange.
Never distribute (or toss) your business card in a manner similar to dealing playing cards.
Never place a stack of your cards on the table and offer others to “take a card” from the stack.
Never carry business cards in your wallet; nor otherwise keep them in your pant’s pocket. A simple card case is quite useful.
Don’t write comments on the other person’s business card, in their presence. You may write on your own name card however to add information (e.g., email, home phone number, etc.)
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