South Korea

Because of the commonly known South Korean value on maintaining harmony and saving face, many business people moving or travelling to South Korea are surprised at the forceful nature of business interactions and negotiation. Building relationships with your counterparts in South Korea by spending time on non-business topics is critical for success in this culture that has traditionally focused on building long-term alliances with trusted partners.

Traditional Korean Worldview

Group Orientation

Identity defined by group; group welfare supersedes individual concerns; interdependence.

Harmony within group important; therefore, competition may be seen as disruptive.

Relationship Focused
Interaction takes precedence over time; quality of life important; work in order to live.

Well formed pattern of rank & authority; status well defined within the hierarchy; formal.

Need for Certainty
Need for stability; rules are known and should not be broken; only familiar risks are taken.

Requires reference to context; loose application of formal rules.

Time is intangible and plentiful; multi-focus, “event time.” 

Cultural Assumptions

  • Observance of Rituals
  • Concept of “Face” (Kibun)
  • Education, self-cultivation
  • Hierarchy and Its Attending Duties
  • Deference to Authority
  • Kinship groups
  • Intuitive
  • Truth-seeking
  • Surface Calm
  • Self-discipline
  • Ancestor Worship: Tradition Continuity
  • Acceptance of fate
  • Spirituality

Traditional Korean Communication Style


Imply/suggest what is meant.  You need to read between the lines.

High Context
Background information assumed depending on nature of relationship.

Sensitivity to hierarchy/face saving very important.

Openly show emotions, mostly within in-group and among peers (compared to other Asian cultures).


Guidelines for Communicating with Koreans

  • Focus on how something is said – relational and mutual-face meanings often outweigh literal, content meanings.
  • Learn to read paralinguistic cues, such as facial expressions, body movements, gestures and pauses.
  • Develop a belief that words can be inadequate and insufficient.
  • Accept that Koreans value indirect talk and that requests are often implied.
  • Don’t be surprised if you never discuss business topics in your first meeting.  This meeting is often used to establish trust.
  • Be aware that negotiations usually begin with both parties at extreme ends of the negotiating spectrum.  Koreans are hard bargainers and know what they want.  They are prepared to compromise, however.
  • Accept that saving face is important, so you will seldom hear the word “No.”  “Yes” does not necessarily mean they agree.  When a Korean says, “That is difficult”, it often means “No.”
  • Show humility and decline the comment when offered a compliment.

Non-Verbal Dynamics

Strong eye contact not encouraged.  Impolite to interrupt or disagree.  Give or receive with both hands.  Traditionally, Koreans use the bow for greeting; however, handshaking is becoming more common.

Koreans do not like to be touched by strangers, and especially not on the head, even children.  Prefer no public kissing or physical affection.  With similar genders and close friendships there can be some touching.

Minimal physical contact unless in public spaces. Prefer formal recognition of space, particularly with the elderly, who are treated with reverence.

Business Practices

PROBLEM SOLVING Inextricably linked with Kibun or face; problems must be approached delicately, without causing embarrassment.
MOTIVATING PEOPLE Treating people with proper respect; taking good care of subordinates, benevolent authority.
APPRAISING PERFORMANCE Subjective and courteous; direct or public criticism will cause a loss of face. Personal relationship (loyalty) supersedes performance.
PERFORMANCE EXPECTATIONS Focus on group harmony & shared accomplishment; qualitative and subjective; includes social & economic concerns.
NEGOTIATING, PERSUADING Proceed slowly, cautiously, patiently. There is no formal end to negotiations and points can come up much later when they are unexpected. Signing of contracts may not be considered as important as the interpersonal relationship.
DECISION MAKING PROCESS Strict formal structure where senior/superior approval is needed for decision.
PARTICIPATION IN MEETINGS Meetings are formal; behavior is reserved; punctuality is crucial; attention to hierarchy in the room.
Responsibility is given to subordinate with trust from the superior. Must not disrespect or show favor between equal ranks. Age and social status are important factors I determining superiority.
HIRING Hiring and firing based on both merit and perceived loyalty. Does not necessarily involve performance considerations.
CUSTOMER RELATIONS Development of strong personal relationships with customers is crucial. Can take much longer than in the US.