Korean Business Etiquette You Must Follow

  • By Satida Thipasathien
  • on 10 Nov 2022
  • Categories : Destinations, Culture, Internship Tips

South Korea is one of the most attractive destinations for young and passionate individuals to engage in business practices. Some aspects of Korean culture however can be perplexing in the eyes of foreigners i.e. How do you greet your Korean associates? How do you sustain a business relationship in South Korea? What to expect in a Korean business contract?

Whether you are a student, working or doing an internship in Korea, this article is here to answer all that and help you gain a better understanding of what expectations await you on the other side of the globe! But before we get into that, we must first look at the definition and significance of Korean business etiquette.

Korean business etiquette is essentially a set of social behaviors and practices that is expected when starting an enterprise or working for a company in South Korea. Without it, you risk tarnishing your own reputation and that of your company’s image. If you are looking to start your own business in South Korea, there is a high chance of you failing to meet the expectations and needs of the local population and that would not be ideal, business-wise.

Wondering what Korean business etiquette is like?

Continue reading to see it for yourself :) We promise that by the time you finish reading this article you will be more than ready to embark on a new journey in South Korea!

Korean Business Etiquette That You Should Follow

If this is your first time doing business with Korean associates, you would want to be on top of all the untold Korean business etiquette. As the person responsible for organizing business conferences and making sure that those confidential contracts are signed, you would love for everything leading up to the meetup and all that follows it to be flawless.

To ensure that everything goes smoothly for you, we have gathered every Korean business etiquette that you need to know before you walk into your business meeting in South Korea (—and in the correct order of things, of course).

And without any further ado, let’s dive right into said Korean business etiquette, shall we?

  • Greeting A Korean
  • You have entered the meeting room and are met with unfamiliar faces. What do you do? How do you greet them? Go in for a handshake or bow? While both are acceptable ways to greet someone, it really all comes down to each person’s preference and gender. Bowing is how Koreans greet each other traditionally. Men usually accompanied their bows with a handshake; women with slight nods. Despite that, women today choose to bow.

    Normally, you would not be the one introducing yourself to the crowd. The task is usually carried out by a third party, for instance, your business associate. In their absence, you can always introduce yourself, too. It would be smart of you to start your meeting right if you want things to go your way. So, go on and flash them a genuine smile!

  • Korean Name And Title
  • Koreans take pride in their titles and ranking in the corporate hierarchy. Addressing them with those is the quickest way to demonstrate your respect towards them. It is therefore important that you memorize those along with their respective departments. You will be calling them by their job title, followed by their family name. And for the best possible result, try to get them right!

    Despite making up a few syllables, you may find Korean names relatively difficult to say. Yes, that’s because there are several ways to pronounce certain names! If for instance you do not know how to correctly pronounce their names in Korean, you may opt to refer to them with their English names— this is especially true with the younger generations since they are more exposed to the Western culture! In spite of that, it is safe to say that they would appreciate being called by their Korean names.

  • First Time Interaction
  • It is a vastly known fact that Koreans put a lot of value into creating social harmony. Especially in business environments where people of various cultures and backgrounds come together to talk about their personal gains, peace and harmony are prone to being disrupted. In order to prevent that from happening, you are highly encouraged to follow these Korean business etiquette.

    Avoid bringing up taboo or sensitive topics such as sexuality, international politics, or matters regarding your associate’s family. It is worth mentioning that most Koreans have strong opinions on these subjects, you certainly do not want to rub them in the wrong way on your initial encounter.

    On the contrary, it is a good idea to start a conversation about Korean culture; each others’ hobbies; and even sports. If you know a few Korean words, you can also use this opportunity to share what you have learned. Any attempt to get to know them better is always appreciated by Koreans!

  • Handling A Business Card
  • A general rule of thumb is to always have your business cards with you when going out for business events since you would be giving them out before or after the initial handshake. They are an excellent way to acquire all the useful information about the person whom you are having a conversation with!

    There are a few key details that you should remember about this common Korean business etiquette. Offer and receive business cards with both hands to show respect. Once you have the cards in your hand, do not put them straight into your pockets. Instead, make appropriate comments on the details imprinted on the cards and place them on the table before you or in your cardholder.

  • Business Meeting
  • Another Korean business etiquette that you should always bear in mind is to schedule your meeting a couple of weeks in advance. Note that most Koreans have very little room on their timetable. Even so, be considerate of their lunch hours and try to book your appointment before or after lunch.

    Scheduling in advance gives you time to shop around for a small gift if this happens to be your first meeting. If your associate is a senior or an elder, you should most definitely pick out sumptuous gifts. But don’t go overboard with it! You most certainly do not want to personalized it too much either because by definition, gifts are a token of respect in South Korea.

    Showing up to a meeting on time is how you display respect. However, in cities like Seoul where traffic congestion is to be expected throughout the day and more so during rush hours, there are high chances that your associates will be running late to the meeting. The same is applied to you hence why you should plan on arriving at the location at least 15 minutes early.

Building Better Business Relationships

These elementary Korean business etiquette, however, can only get you started on cultivating strong business relationships in South Korea. Since businesses large and small in South Korea form new professional connections every now and then, it deems sensible and appropriate to ensure and sustain a long-lasting business relationship.

And it doesn’t always take much to maintain good relations. Consider the following techniques to guarantee healthy and lasting business relationships!

  • Be Thoughtful With What You (Have To) Say
  • In South Korea, anything you say can be used in the favor of or against you and your businesses. If you want to cherish business partnership, remain humble. On that note, you are advised against showering them with over the top compliments as this too could be perceived negatively by your fellow Korean businessmen.

    By keeping your modesty in check, we do not mean for you to disregard all the accomplishments from your side of the business. You are welcome to sprinkle a couple of praises here and there to build credibility to your own business— just don’t overdo it. The last thing you want is to brag about yourself. At the end of the day, you are trying to strengthen your relationship with someone else!

  • Be Attuned To How Koreans Talk
  • Aside from knowing what to say and what not to say in a formal business setting, we urge you to be more in tune with how Koreans communicate with each other. Not only does this give you ample opportunity to study from the native and extract fascinating cultural knowledge, but it also allows you to pick up other key societal relationships that are happening in South Korea real-time.

    The larger Asian concept of ‘kibun’ (‘기분’ — refers to face or feelings of oneself; others) plays a large role in how Koreans interact with one another. In business environments, a vastly common Korean business etiquette is practiced to avoid confrontation and conflicts from occurring. That Korean business etiquette, and a customary act, is to bring up any criticism; disagreement in private.

  • Understand The Korean Decision-Making Process
  • If you are accustomed to the Korean business ecosystem, you probably already know that Koreans take their time to finalize any decision as general consensus is considered central in all that they do. This explains why first meetings often serve as a get-to-know-each-other session where barely any business discussion takes place.

    Making the point across that you are well aware and truly understand how businesses are carried out in South Korea would also increase your accountability— as it indicates that you have done proper research! Practicing this Korean business etiquette would instill confidence and trust in your business partner.

  • Create Rapport
  • To foster a long-lasting business relationship, you should always aim to be understanding and considerate of those whom you are holding the conversation or discussion with. Remember that you are not looking for short-term gains or profits! So, start conversations with your business partner; bond over shared professional experiences or through personal stories. Be authentic and professional!

    If formal settings stress you out, try to mellow it down by choosing a change of scenery. Don’t shy away from suggesting to do your business negotiations during a nice dinner or in a restaurant— believe it or not, they are a common practice in South Korea! Perhaps, after a couple of outings together, you can expect favorable outcomes in the long-run!

  • Go Out And Socialize
  • The eating and drinking don’t stop there. You will still be eating and drinking after important matters have been discussed! (Notice a pattern here? Sharing your food and drinks is the way to Koreans’ hearts!) That said, it is not uncommon for your business partners to take you out for a social outing after your heated negotiations so, don’t freak out if they do. This is widely popular Korean business etiquette!

    As you may have guessed, this is how Koreans establish good interpersonal working relationships with whoever they come into contact with. Though you are encouraged to participate, you can always turn down their offer and be upfront about your personal reasons as to why you could not join... They would understand!

    Dining Etiquette in Korea

    When it comes to what is arguably the most essential part of Korean business etiquette (hint: dining), you cannot afford to ruin your chances of leaving a good first impression or severing a long established business relationship because of some faux pas. This is why we have compiled a list of key Korean dining etiquette you should definitely take notes of!

  • Aspects Of Dinner Etiquette To Note
  • Some of the key dinner etiquette you totally cannot ignore when going out for a formal outing event or doing business in South Korea are as follows:

    Before you get started on the food in front of you, say ‘Jal-mukkes-seub-ni-da’ (‘잘 먹겠습니다’ — which is roughly translated to ‘I will eat well’) to display your gratitude. Similarly, you should end your dinner with ‘Jal-meok-ge-sseum-ni-da' (‘잘 먹겠습니다’ — ‘I ate well’) and ensure that there is no leftover food on the table to show your appreciation for it.

    Staying focused on enjoying the food that has been prepared for you is another equally crucial Korean business etiquette! Talks often occur over coffee and/or tea. The only exception to this is during ‘Hoesik’ (‘회식’— or social gathering).

    If you are joined by elders and senior members of any organization, do not start your meal until they start theirs! Always pass dishes and drinks to them with both hands to show your respect towards them. Another vital aspect of Korean dining etiquette is to drink facing the other direction and not towards the direction in which your senior guests are sitting.

  • Dinner Timing
  • Another crucial Korean dining etiquette is to pay respect to what time dinner occurs. To Koreans, dinner is the significant meal of the day which is why you can expect to see large dishes at the center of the table, plenty of side dishes, and lots of people too. A typical Korean dinner takes place between 7pm to 9pm which is ideal for regular office workers whose work finishes at 6pm.

Understanding Business Contracts

Outside of your regular ‘hoesik’, business relationships can be formed on business contracts! Business contracts outline everything that is involved in these newly established business relations from the rules employees must comply to and what is expected of them.

  • Importance Of Clear Communication
  • Since contracts are the starting point of your formal business relationship with your hiring company/ employee, they are what set the path in which you would have to follow. Acting prematurely could lead to many unnecessary changes and unfavorable complications down the line.

    For these reasons, you are strongly advised to lay everything that you would like to gain from your time at the company down on the table and set things straight with your potential employer. Working together to come to a mutual agreement and avoid conflicts is probably one of the best ways to go about this matter in South Korea.

    In the following section of our article on Korean Business Etiquette You Must Follow, we will explore how Koreans like their Korean contracts!

  • What Contract Koreans Prefer
  • It is worth mentioning that Koreans like their contracts to be as ambiguous and vague as possible. This is why you should always double and triple check everything before signing your Korean business contract to make sure that you are understanding what is being written down in your contract correctly. Do not hesitate to clarify anything with the people involved!

    At the end of the day what they asked of you will become a central part of your day to day work. Not only does understanding what the other party’s demands are help you assess and evaluate your current skills and abilities, they act like a guide that points you towards the path of growth.

There you have it— every Korean business etiquette you ever need to know in order to flourish and grow in the business world! We hope that you find this article on Korean Business Etiquette You Must Follow more or less beneficial to you.

Now, we reckon that it is the appropriate time to pass the baton to you. Go practice your newly acquired Korean business etiquette in South Korea!

Internship in South Korea

About author

A language graduate from Chulalongkorn University in Thailand. A culture enthusiast.


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