South Korea Communication Styles

There is a contradiction at the heart of Korean communication patterns which is that, like the Japanese, Koreans want to preserve harmony and promote good relations but at the same time they have a tendency to become emotional if they feel that things are not going their way.

This combination of the non-confrontational and the emotional probably stems from the historical sufferings of the nation and is best categorised under the concept of hahn. Hahn describes the feelings of unreleased frustrations developed during periods of extreme hardship in the past and which is still felt in certain elements of society today. If a Korean expresses obvious disquiet in a meeting it is fairly good sign that the meeting is not going well.

Generally speaking, Koreans regard saying ‘no’ as poor etiquette and something to be avoided at all costs. It can, therefore, be difficult to get at the truth of their intentions. Unhappiness and disagreement will usually be voiced very vaguely through the use of such phrases as ‘we will try’ or ‘that might be difficult but we will explore the idea’. Nor does ‘yes’ necessarily mean ‘yes’. It might simply mean ‘I have heard you’ or ‘I recognise that you have made a point’. Due to this vagueness of meaning it is very often necessary to go over the same point many times trying to elicit more meaning as time progresses. This obviously has the effect of making meetings longer and can be somewhat frustrating. It is important to maintain patience and politeness at all times.

Remember that communication is seen as a means of developing good relationships. Therefore, the way in which you deliver the message could in fact be more important than the message itself.
It is important to maintain good body posture during meetings. Slouching or overly expressive body gestures could be disconcerting.

A brief overview of some key concepts to consider when doing business in South Korea

Written and Produced by Keith Warburton

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This country profile has been produced to give a short overview of some of the key concepts to bear in mind when doing business with contacts in South Korea. It is intended to be an aid to business people who have commercial dealings with counterparties in the country but should not be seen as an exhaustive guide to this topic or as a substitute for more substantial research should there be a need.

With this in mind, we have covered the areas which are key to a better understanding of the cultural mindset underpinning business dealings in South Korea and which are, quite often, extremely different from the approach and thought processes associated with business in other parts of the world.

Therefore this briefing note is broken into short, bite-sized sections on the following topics:

  • Background to business
  • Business Structures
  • Management style
  • Meetings
  • Teamwork
  • Communication
  • Women in business
  • Entertaining
  • Top tips