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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In little over half a century (since the end of Korean War), South Korea has managed to transform itself from a deeply impoverished nation to one of the world’s leading economies. It achieved this whilst at the same time restricting Direct Foreign Investment (FDI) and with a strongly interventionist government which dictated policy and goal-setting to local industry. Over the same period, it moved from being a follower of product development to a global leader of innovation. And this has massively improved the overall affluence of its citizens.

How did South Korea succeed where so many other countries have tried and failed? What does South Korea have which other countries lack? In a word, the answer is culture. South Korea is steeped in key Confucian attitudes which have enabled this economic miracle to occur. Confucianism extols the virtues of education; South Korea’s approach to education is universally lauded and endlessly studied. Confucianism places emphasis on frugality and loyalty; hard work and acceptance of temporary hardship, bringing their own rewards over time.

If you are thinking of doing business in South Korea (and you really should be), then one of the key elements of successful engagement with South Korean counterparts and potential partners must be linked to gaining a better understanding of South Korean business culture. If you don’t understand how companies are structured locally, how do you know who you should be speaking to? If you are not aware that South Korea is group-oriented in its approach, how can you understand the local decision-making process?

This country profile provides an overview of some of the key aspects of South Korean business culture in a concise, easy to follow-format. The document includes information on:

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