In order to understand Korean etiquette, it is necessary to explore the broader cultural context in which the notion of oriental courtesy has developed. Perhaps the most important influence on the Korean culture and lifestyle is Confucianism which arrived there from China in the 14th century. Confucianism emphasizes loyalty, reverence to seniors, and harmonious relations with friends, relatives, partners and broader community. These values have formed the foundation of Korean etiquette in both public and private domains. Like in other Asian cultures, the importance of personal relationships in business is often underestimated by Westerners. Personal relationships imply lasting obligations towards each other, and Koreans expect their business partners to act in the interests of business partnership rather then their own interests. It can be attributed to the fact that the essentially collectivist orientation of Confucianism-based cultures attaches a higher importance to the wellbeing of family and community and not individual wellbeing, as Ghauri and Fang (2001) inform. Business partners are expected to be open and honest with each other, and business relationships are based on trust.
The notion of kibun (literally translated as pride or state of mind) is very important, so both showing and eliciting respect is crucial. Damaging someone’s kibun causes the other person to loose face which is regarded as an ultimate disgrace. For example, a manager’s kibun is threatened by his subordinates’ reluctance to follow his or her instructions, and an employee’s kibun is damaged if a manager makes him or her a target for public criticism. An ability to judge other persons’ kibun or state of mind, also referred to as nunchi, is deemed extremely important. Therefore, in both business and personal interactions, partners should try to gauge other person’s kibun by paying attention to body language and voice tone (Kwintessential 2010). Another central concept is inhwa, which can be understood as focus on harmony and respect of hierarchical relationships and authority. Thus, inequality, especially of age and prestige, is seen as an organizing principle of all types of relationships, according to Alston (1989).
Contemporary Western etiquette is strikingly different. The key elements of Western etiquette are based on American ideals of individualism and self-reliance. While personal relationships are important, the notion of meritocracy implies that the best person or company should be hired for the job, regardless of how strong the relationship between counterparts is. Favoritism and nepotisms are considered counterproductive and unfair and are therefore are looked down upon. In the West, formal qualities of agreements and formal relationships of subordination are more important than personal qualities backing them. Contracts are expected to be observed in good faith, and written agreements are enforced by lawyers and other intermediaries in case of violation. Moreover, there is a marked separation of public and private spheres: each individual maintains autonomy in his or her personal affairs, and business partners are not supposed to take excessive interest in them. On the other hand, relationships between managers and subordinates can be marked by a high degree of informality which is manifested, for example, in the fact that they can call each other by first names regardless of status, as Sheer and Chen (2003) correctly observe. On the other hand, strict rules of formal protocol are followed when it comes to greeting, seating arrangement, etc. (Kwintessential 2010). One more major difference is associated with the fact that risk taking, entrepreneurship and innovation are seen as the key to success in the West, while Confucian cultures place an added emphasis on perseverance and thrift, as Buttery and Leung (1998) conclude in their study of differences in Asian and Western negotiation styles.
The aforementioned conceptual differences between Western and Korean cultures translate into practical differences in business protocol and etiquette. For instance, establishing connections in government circles is a must in Korea (Alston 1989), while attempts to do so can be seen as corruption in the West. In Europe and America, there exists less respect for ranks and statuses than in Korea, therefore Western companies should make sure that their negotiators are at least equal to Korean counterparts in terms of age and prestige. It is not uncommon for Westerners to send the most technically or interculturally qualified person to negotiations (Sheer & Chen 2003), yet Koreans might be reluctant to speak to a person with less experience and lower status and be offended by such a turn of events. The concept of kibun and reluctance to disrupt harmony makes it hard for Koreans to deliver bad news (if they do so, it usually happens in late afternoon not to ruin other person’s day), therefore Westerners should pay attention to non-verbal signs and mood changes of their partners (Alston 1989). In Korea, there is a widespread practice of refraining from disclosure of full information unless asked, as Lee and Yoshihara (1997) inform, yet such an approach would be seen as dishonesty in the West. Giving small gifts is not uncommon in business relationships in Korea (World Trade Press 1997), while such practice is more or less absent in the West. Thus, it is possible to conclude that there are notable differences between Korean and Western business cultures and codes of ethics. In order to be successful in an Asian country, foreigners need to develop an understanding of formal aspects of etiquette (such as gift-giving, greetings, body language and seating arrangements) as well as underlying cultural assumptions (such as Confucianism-inspired focus on harmony, community and hierarchy).
Alston, J.P. “Wa, Guanxi and Inhwa: managerial principles in Japan, China and Korea.” Business Horizons 32.2 (1989), 26-31. Print.
Buttery, E.A., & Leung, T.K.P. “The difference between Chinese and Western negotiations.” European Journal of Marketing 32.3/4 (1998): 132-146.
Ghauri, P., & Fang, T. “Negotiating with the Chinese: A socio-cultural analysis.” Journal of World Business 36.3 (2001): 303-325.
Kwintessential. “South Korea – Language, Culture, Customs and Etiquette.” 2010. Web. May 17, 2010. <http://www.kwintessential.co.uk/resources/global-etiquette/south-korea-country-profile.html>
Lee, Ch.-Y., & Yoshihara, H. “Business Ethics of Korean and Japanese Managers.” Journal of Business Ethics 16.1 (1997): 7-21. Print.
Sheer, V.C., & Chen, L. “Successful Sino-Western Business Negotiation: Participants’ Accounts of National and Professional Cultures.” Journal of Business Communication 40.1 (2003): 50-85.
World Trade Press. Passport Korea: your pocket guide to Korean business, customs and etiquette. Sebastapol, CA: O’Reilly Media, 1997.