But before I go into it, I would like to introduce you to the Korean word “kibun” which has no exact English translation to it; and the closest terms to describe it, are pride, face, mood, feelings, or state of mind. For example, if you hurt someone's kibun, it means that you have hurt his pride, which will cause him to lose his dignity and probably lose face. Korean interpersonal relationships operate on the principle of harmony so it is important to maintain a peaceful and comfortable atmosphere at all times. Thus it is important to know how to judge the state of someone else's kibun, how to avoid hurting it, and how to keep your own kibun at the same time. In business, a manager's kibun is hurt if his subordinates do not show him proper respect while a subordinate's kibun is hurt if his manager criticizes him in public.
To be able to judge another person's state of mind is essential in order not to hurt the person's kibun. The ability to determine another person's kibun by using the eye is known as “nunchi”. This can be accomplished by watching the body language and listening to the tone of voice as well as what is being said. As long as you keep these two things in mind, you will never embarrass your Korean friends and neither will you embarrass yourself.
So let’s start with the introductions first.
Meeting and Greeting
The bow is the traditional Korean greeting, although it is often accompanied by a handshake among men. To show respect when shaking hands, support your right forearm with your left hand.
Korean women usually nod slightly and will not shake hands with Western men. Western women may offer their hand to a Korean man.
Bow when departing. Younger people wave (move their arm from side to side).
Names and Titles
It is considered very impolite to address a Korean with his or her given name. Address Koreans using appropriate professional titles until specifically invited by your host or colleagues to use their given names.
Americans should address a Korean with Mr., Mrs., Miss + family name; however, never address a high-ranking person or superior in this manner.
Korean names are the opposite of Western names with the family name first, followed by the two-part given name. The first of the two given names is shared by everyone of the same generation in the family, and the second is the individual's given name. Example: Lee (Family) + Dong (Shared Given) + Sung (Given). Dong Sung is the individual's given name. Address him as Mr. Lee or Lee Sonsaengnim (which means "teacher").
Koreans consider it a personal violation to be touched by someone who is not a relative or close friend. Avoid touching, patting or back slapping a Korean.
Direct eye contact between junior and senior businesspeople should be avoided. This is seen as impolite or even as a challenge.
Do not cross your legs or stretch your legs out straight in front of you. Keep your feet on the floor, never on a desk or chair.
Always pass and receive objects with your right hand (supported by the left hand at the wrist or forearm) or with two hands.
To beckon someone, extend your arm, palm down, and move your fingers in a scratching motion. Never point with your index finger.
- Many South Koreans shake hands with expatriates after the bow, thereby blending both cultural styles.
- The person of lower status bows to the person of higher status, yet it is the most senior person who initiates the handshake.
- The person who initiates the bow says, "man-na-suh pan-gop-sumnida", which means "pleased to meet you."
- Information about the other person will be given to the person they are being introduced to in advance of the actual meeting.
- Wait to be introduced at a social gathering.
- When you leave a social gathering, say good-bye and bow to each person individually.
Koreans usually eat rice, soup, with three to four side dishes, and sometimes more, so a typical Korean table setting would consist of a bowl of rice, a soup bowl, a spoon and chopsticks, which are arranged from left to right, in that order, for each person. Korean meals are not usually served in courses.
Stews and side dishes are placed in the center to be shared by all members. Koreans generally believe that sharing food from one bowl makes a relationship closer, but if one feels uncomfortable with sharing the one-for-all dishes, it is okay to ask for an individual bowl or plate. Today many Korean restaurants naturally provide individual bowls and plates.
Since ancient times, Koreans have used a spoon to eat the rice, soup and stews while chopsticks were used to eat the rather dry side dishes. Koreans have been trained to use the spoon and the chopsticks correctly from childhood. Using both of these utensils at the same time is considered to display bad manners.
Koreans often say no when asked to have a second helping, even if he would like to do so. It is polite etiquette to decline the first invitation for a second helping. Your host will then keep on insisting that you take a second helping, and only then is it considered alright to accept it. Of course, you can politely decline if you are already full.
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Dining and Entertainment
Sharing a dinner is vital to building friendships that foster trust. Your business success is directly related to your social relationships.
Do not pour your own drink, but do offer to pour others'. It is common to trade and fill each other's cup. To refuse is an insult. Women pour men's drinks, but never another woman's drink. A woman may pour her own drink. Leave some drink in your glass if you don't want a refill.
Wherever you see a "No Tipping" sign, do not tip. Koreans find tipping offensive, although tipping is now becoming expected in Western hotels.
Koreans do not like to talk a lot during dinner. Periods of silence are common and appreciated at a dinner. The meal usually comes before socializing at a dinner party.
It is polite to pass or accept food or drink with your right hand while your left hand supports your forearm/wrist.
The person who invites pays the bill for everyone. However, it is polite to offer to pay. When two people are dining, usually the younger person pays for the older person.
Prepare to sing a solo number after dinner, no matter what kind of voice you have. Any song is acceptable, as long as you sing with spirit.
After dinner, the host may invite his guests to go drinking. Don't refuse this invitation.
Following are the dos and don’ts at the Korean dinner table.
If you are invited to a South Korean's house:
- It is common for guests to meet at a common spot and travel together.
- You may arrive up to 30 minutes late without giving offence.
- It is customary to bring a gift for the hostess.
- Remove your shoes before entering the house.
- The host greets each guest individually.
- The host pours drinks for the guests in their presence. The hostess does not pour drinks.
- Always allow your host to seat you. The seat of honor is the seat looking at the front door. If you are seated in the seat of honor, it is polite to protest slightly.
- Before you eat, especially at someone's home, it's polite to say that you are looking forward to the meal. Jalmukesumneda (I will eat well) and it is customary to acknowledge your thanks after the meal. Masegaemugusuyo (I ate well).
- The hosts usually accompany guests to the gate or to their car because they believe that it is insulting to wish your guests farewell indoors.
- Send a thank you note the following day after being invited to dinner.
- Wait for the elderly people at the table to start eating first before you do so, no matter how hungry you may be. Older people are highly regarded in Korean culture and eating before them is considered impolite.
- At first, taste soup, and then try the rice or other dishes. Use spoon for rice and liquid foods, such as stews or soups; use chopsticks for other foods.
- Do not pick out what you don't like or shake off seasonings.
- Hold your chopsticks and spoon one at a time. Never hold both at the same time.
- When using chopsticks, the spoon is rested on the table. The spoon and chopsticks should not rest on any bowl or dish during the meal.
- Never point with your chopsticks when you speak.
- Don't stick your chopsticks straight up into your bowl because that resembles traditional Korean ancestral ceremonies.
- Chopsticks should be returned to the table after every few bites and when you drink or stop to speak.
- Do not cross your chopsticks when putting them on the chopstick rest.
- Unlike in China and Japan, Koreans do not hold their bowls or plates in the palm of their hands while eating.
- Do not leave the table while eating unless you need to go to the restroom very badly.
- Do not read a book or newspaper or watch TV while eating.
- Do not reach across the table for distant food - ask a nearby person to pass it to you.
- Eat as quietly as possible. Making a lot of noise while chewing is frowned upon, as is making excessive sounds with your cutlery.
- It's not good manners to eat faster or slower than others, so try to keep pace with the other people around you by eating not too fast or too slow.
- Try to maintain an upright posture when eating and bring the food to your mouth rather than leaning forward to take a bite.
- Don't take so much food that you can't finish, as that is considered wasteful.
- Try a little bit of everything. It is acceptable to ask what something is.
- Refuse the first offer of second helpings.
- Finish everything on your plate.
- Bones and shells should be put on an extra plate.
- If someone senior to you is extending you a drink, you should accept it with both your hands cupped on the glass. More importantly, you are expected to drink with your head turned sideways, away from your senior.
- When you pour for someone senior to you, place your other hand lightly under your pouring hand or under your opposite elbow.
- Ensure that you keep the glasses of your seniors always full; a good way of being in their good books.
- Indicate you have finished eating by placing your chopsticks on the chopstick rest or on the table. Never place them parallel across your rice bowl. You can put the napkin back on the table loosely folded.
- Wait to leave the table until after the oldest person at the table has left his seat. Then you may follow. It is considered rude if one leaves the table before the elder finishes. Staying put until the oldest person is finished is considered a basic concept of Korean table manners.
- If you have to cough or sneeze at the table, turn completely away from the table and cover your mouth.
- It's acceptable table manners to use a toothpick, but you must cover your mouth so others cannot see. Be sure to throw away the toothpick discreetly.
- If you happen to finish your meal before one or more of the elderly people at the table, refrain from resetting your place setting, and just leave your spoon in the rice bowl until the others have finished.
- Always follow the example of the host or of other native Koreans at your table if you are confused about how to eat a specific Korean dish.
- Do not pick up food with your hands. Fruit should be speared with a toothpick.
Reciprocate with a gift of similar value when receiving a gift from your Korean colleague. Koreans like regional United States gifts and Indian/Western artifacts.
Wrap your gift nicely. Bright colors are preferred for wrapping gifts. Yellow and red or green stripes are a traditional Korean wrapping paper design. Avoid wrapping gifts in dark colors. Always bring a small gift for the hostess when invited to someone's home. Give: small gift, candy, cakes, cookies, flowers, fruit. Do not give liquor to a woman.
It is common to exchange gifts at the first business meeting. Allow the host to present his gift first.
Give: liquor (good quality scotch), fruit, desk accessories, small mementos, gifts from France or Italy (which often indicate status).
Gift Giving Etiquette
- Gifts express a great deal about a relationship and are always reciprocated.
- Do not give too expensive gifts (Koreans will feel obligated to reciprocate with a gift of equal value), knives or scissors (they signify "cutting off" a relationship), green headwear, gifts with red writing (denotes death) or gifts in a set of four (denotes death).
- Bring fruit or good quality chocolates or flowers if invited to a Korean's home.
- Gifts should be wrapped nicely.
- Giving 7 of an item is considered lucky.
- Do not wrap gifts in green, white, or black paper.
- Do not sign a card in red ink.
- Use both hands when offering a gift.
- Gifts are not opened when received.
Koreans expect Westerners to be punctual for social occasions and business meetings. Call if you will be delayed. However, you may be kept waiting up to a half hour. This is not a sign of disrespect, but reflects the pressure of time on Korean executives.
Professionals meeting for the first time usually exchange business cards. Present your card and receive your colleague's card with both hands.
Building trust and relationships is vital to establishing a successful business relationship. This requires patience. Koreans prefer to do business with people they know.
The first meeting is to establish trust, so business should not be discussed. Be formal in meetings until the Korean delegation loosens up.
Negotiations are generally long and require several trips. Be prepared for business meetings to go well beyond business hours.
Koreans generally start negotiations at an unreasonable position and prepare to compromise. Koreans are tough negotiators and admire a firm, persistent negotiator, but refrain from being too aggressive.
A low, deep bow from Koreans at the end of a meeting indicates a successful meeting. A quick, short parting bow could mean dissatisfaction with meetings. Send a meeting review outlining all discussions and agreements to your Korean counterpart after you leave Korea. Make several visits during negotiations and after business is established.
"Yes" is not necessarily “yes.” Koreans avoid saying "no." Try to phrase questions in a manner that doesn't require a "yes" or "no" answer. Example: Instead of saying "Could we sign the agreement by next Friday?” say "When is the earliest date that we could expect to sign this agreement?"
And this is for the women.Foreign women may have difficulty doing business in Korea. Although women are becoming more accepted in the Korean business place, Korean men generally prefer to negotiate with men.
Korean women seldom shake hands. A Western woman can offer her hand to a Korean man, but should not to a Korean woman.
Foreign businesswomen should always act elegant, refined and very "feminine.” Laughing and loud talking are frowned upon.
Generally, women wait for Korean men to make the first move.
- South Koreans prefer to do business with people with whom they have a personal connection.
- It is therefore crucial to be introduced by a third-party.
- Relationships are developed through informal social gatherings that often involve a considerable amount of drinking and eating.
- Individuals who have established mutual trust and respect will work hard to make each other successful.
- South Koreans treat legal documents as memorandums of understanding.
- They view contracts as loosely structured consensus statements that broadly define agreement and leave room for flexibility and adjustment as needed.
- Under no circumstances insult or criticize in front of others.
- Sensitive matters may often be raised indirectly through the intermediary that first made the introductions.
- South Koreans are extremely direct communicators. They are not averse to asking questions if they do not understand what has been said or need additional clarification.
- This is a culture where "less is more" when communicating. Respond to questions directly and concisely.
- Since there is a tendency to say "yes" to questions so that you do not lose face, the way you phrase a question is crucial. It is better to ask, "When can we expect shipment?" than "Can we expect shipment in 3 weeks?", since this question requires a direct response.
- Appointments are required and should be made 3 to 4 weeks in advance.
- You should arrive on time for meetings as this demonstrates respect for the person you are meeting.
- The most senior South Korean generally enters the room first.
- It is a good idea to send both an agenda and back-up material including information about your company and client testimonials prior to the meeting.
- The main purpose of the first meeting is to get to know each other.
- Meetings are used to understand a client's needs and challenges. They lay the foundation for building the relationship.
- Do not remove your jacket unless the most senior South Korean does so.
- Have all written materials available in both English and Korean.
- Business cards are exchanged after the initial introductions in a highly ritualized manner.
- The way you treat someone's business card is indicative of the way you will treat the person.
- Have one side of your business card translated into Korean.
- Using both hands, present your business card with the Korean side facing up so that it is readable by the recipient.
- Examine any business card you receive carefully.
- Put the business cards in a business card case or a portfolio.
- Never write on someone's business card in their presence.
- Business attire is conservative.
- Men should wear dark- colored, conservative business suits with white shirts.
- Women should dress conservatively and wear subdued colors.
- Men should avoid wearing jewelry other than a watch or a wedding ring.
Never use words like "fellow," "guy," "this man" or "that man." This is considered demeaning.
Expect Koreans to ask personal questions. This is viewed as showing a polite interest in your life.
Deny a compliment. Don't say "thank you." It is impolite and shows a lack of humility.
Never expect Koreans to admit to not knowing an answer when questioned. They may give an incorrect answer or an answer they think you would like to hear to make you feel good or to save face.
Don't talk about Koreans or their customs or culture within earshot of a Korean, even if you are saying good things. Do not talk about politics.
So there you are, I think you should be able to survive with these tips I’ve given you today. So see you again next time.
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