An etiquette guide. That’s what you need before traveling for business to South Korea. Why? Because Korean business meeting etiquette is rather different than that of the West. And, you’ll surely agree that being culturally fluent is one of the prerequisites for building lasting business relationships.
You know the basics of politics and economy of South Korea, so you will not be surprised when any of these topics come up in conversation. (If you need a quick reference cheat sheet for that feel free to download yours here. It’s now time to dig deeper into the South Korean greeting customs.
For a personalized deep dive, reach out to EHLION’s cultural coaches, they will help you swim safely in the stormy waters of international business.
Korean introduction etiquette
There are many dos and don‘ts when traveling to Korea, but when it comes to the Korean business meeting etiquette appropriate behavior matters tenfold!
Our coaching clients often ask about the Korean handshake etiquette, a question directly linked to the topic of bowing.
While bowing is a common practice in many Asian countries, foreign visitors and business people don’t need to learn how to bow in Korea. It is accepted that foreigners will not always follow the local customs.
With the question of Korean bowing etiquette resolved, we can move on to the common South Korean greetings. Here is your blueprint on how to follow Korean introduction etiquette.
It’s always best to be introduced by a third party, and the higher the status of the introducer, the better.
To greet another person simply look at them, bow, say annyeonghaseyo and shake their hand. As said above, you can also skip the bow if it feels awkward.
Important: In South Korean communication it’s customary to shake hands both in the beginning and at the end of a conversation.
It might feel awkward to point out, but there is no room for hugging or cheek kissing in the formal Korean greeting culture!
Even if you are communicating via a Korean interpreter, remember to maintain eye contact.
Start the conversation with small talk.
The last point smoothly brings us to the next topic...
Verbal communication in South Korea
Before we move on to the nonverbal aspects of relationship-building, let’s talk briefly about the Korean verbal communication practices: greetings and small talk.
Polite Korean greetings
Whether we talk about informal or business communication, in South Korea family name comes first when addressing people.
Calling someone by their first name is considered rude in South Korea. Instead refer to each person by their last name and their job title.
Important: Only if there is no job title should you use Mr/Mrs/Miss with the family name.
Keep in mind that women keep their family name after marriage. Do not make the mistake of addressing a woman with her husband’s family name.
As a language, Korean is notoriously hard for foreign learners. It’s a good idea to hire an interpreter for more advanced stages of your business negotiation. However, for the initial phase you’ll be fine with learning these basic Korean greetings.
Phrases for meeting and greeting people are the best way to start building rapport with your new business partners. Below are several phrases you will likely use over an over in South Korea.
Annyeonghaseyo (안녕하세요) — hello
Mannaseo bangapseumnida (만나서 반갑습니다) — nice to meet you
Annyeonghigeseyo (안녕히계세요) — goodbye. Used when you are the person leaving.
Annyeonghigaseyo (안녕히가세요)—goodbye. Used when the other person is leaving.
Gamsahapnida (감사합니다) — thank you.
Ready for part two of communication style in South Korea? The second important topic to cover is small talk.
Korean communication: Small talk
Before you move on to business topics or negotiations, South Korean greeting customs indicate to start with small talk.
Typical topics you can opt for during small talk are:
Business. Ask your partner how their business is going.
Family. Ask about the health of their family.
South Korea! Comment and ask about South Korean culture, economic success, and international accomplishments.
Before we move on, make sure you know the basics about Korean economy. Get small talk ready and download this reference guide to South Korea.
Tip: South Korea is a proud nation. They value their history very much, so make sure not to compare them to other Asian countries. Needless to add, don’t confuse South Korea with other countries either!
Phew! With greetings and initial conversation topics covered, let’s jump into some key aspects of nonverbal communication.
Conversations: From taboos to South Korea’s negotiation style
South Korean taboos
The list of South Korean taboos doesn’t really include anything unexpected. Here are several topics it’ll be best to avoid during meetings:
Personal family matters
Korean sense of humor typically doesn’t translate between languages, and making a bad joke can easily lead you into the realm of taboos. Thankfully, Koreans will not expect foreigners to make jokes during conversations.
While English is becoming more and more popular, especially as a language of business, the best option for the safety of your business is to hire an interpreter. It is still the case that many South Koreans don’t speak English. And if you need Korean translations we can help you with that too!
Korean business card etiquette
Business cards are an essential part of the Korean business meeting etiquette. Aware of the importance of business cards in many Asian cultures, many of EHLION’s coaching clients often stress about this part of the Korean introduction etiquette.
In reality, there is nothing complicated to learn here. Following the simple tips below will ensure you make a great first impression:
Make sure your business card has your full name, your title, and position clearly displayed.
If you want, you can have it translated into Korean.
Business cards with two sides—one in English, one in Korean—are a good way to make sure your status and position are clearly communicated.
Present your business cards with both hands holding the sides of the card before you start a conversation.
When receiving Korean business cards, also do so withboth hands. Bow your head slightly when you pick up your partner’s card.
After receiving Korean business cards, read them carefully and place them face up on the table in front of you.
If you are not seated, hold the card in your right hand for the entire conversation.
Important: Do not put a business card in your pocket, and do not write on it during the conversation. This is considered very disrespectful.
Still feeling insecure about business relationships with your Korean partners? Get (Korean) cultural fluency with the help of EHLION’s cultural coaches.
Nonverbal communication in South Korea
The role of nonverbal communication in South Korea cannot be underestimated. While you’d need to study it for years to feel completely at ease, there are several simple rules that will help prevent making cultural mistakes.
The concept of saving face is a basis for communication in South Korea. These pointers will help translate it into practical actions:
Never ask about alcohol, unless it is offered.
If you have been offered a drink, do not refuse it.
Don’t over-compliment anyone, it will be perceived as sarcastic.
Don’t accept a compliment directly. Be modest.
Don’t point at anything with your fingers. Instead, gesture with an open hand.
Nodding. Koreans often acknowledge what they hear by saying “yes” or nodding. This, however, does not necessarily signal agreement with your opinions!
In addition: Don’t directly disagree with anyone during a meeting. Try to be descriptive, or use the formula of “yes, but…”.
South Korea’s negotiation style
As an experienced business person, what you might be wondering is how to approach the later stage of business relationships in Korea. Negotiations have two important aspects to be mindful of.
South Koreans put a strong emphasis on developing a relationship before proceeding to negotiations. First invest in building a strong personal relationship—it will result in much better negotiation outcomes.
Signs of impatience will be taken advantage of. South Koreans are prepared to wait until the frustrated party gives in.
Bonus note: Interpreters
As mentioned before, for the key stages in negotiations, it might be best to hire an interpreter. If you do so, opt for someone with an official Korean-English interpreter certification. This is especially important if your Korean business partners don’t speak English at the same level as you do.
While we prepared general guidelines to serve as an introduction, we know that each business is different. To make sure you choose tactics that bring the best results for your business, consult our cultural coaches and capitalize on our experience in launching international businesses in South Korea.