It should surprise nobody to find more and more investment is being made by western businesses in the South Korean economy. If you are planning on expanding into South Korean, then you must understand some of the key rules of etiquette that govern much of the business interactions that take place there. This is particularly essential for anybody travelling there on business, as it could be the difference between a warm welcome and a hostile reception for you and your company.
This guide will give you the major things to remember when you do business in Seoul, Busan, Incheon or any other major Korean business centre.
Confucian concepts of etiquette
Though it might sound strange to foreign ears, Confucius is a major influence on how Koreans do business. Central to his theories was the hierarchy of age, and the importance of authority and education. This means any business relationship will be founded upon a respect that always goes upwards to the eldest, the best educated and the most authoritative member of the party. A Korean business person will want to know many facts about you that you might think entirely superfluous to your ability to get the job done, such as your marital status, age and educational grades. For them, however, this information is crucial, as it will dictate how they should treat you.
Close relationships are important
Koreans don't like to do business with strangers. Until they really feel as if they know you, they will not be comfortable sharing important company data or introducing you to their circle of contacts. This can be frustrating for somebody who comes from a faster moving, more results-driven business environment, but it is the way things are. Expect plenty of non-business related small talk before anybody will get down to the nitty-gritty with you. You have to have the patience, respect and charm to build long lasting connections if you want to get ahead.
Bonding outside of the boardroom
The best way to get to know the people that you wish to do business with is to socialise, away from the office. Drinking and eating are a big part of how South Korean business flows, though don't expect to talk shop at the dinner table. These informal occasions are ways for the different parties to get to know one another personally not to hash out contracts and deals.
Unlike many other Asian cultures, the South Koreans put an onus on punctuality in business. This does not mean being early, however. Rather, it means arriving precisely on time or just a few minutes before a meeting. Arrive very early and the person you are meeting may feel you are putting pressure on their schedule. Arrive late and you will have offended their sense of respect and hierarchy. Business cards might be somewhat out of fashion in some western countries, but they are a big part of how the Korean business person gets to know the person they are meeting, so make sure you have a good one and it gives plenty of information about your position and title. You might even consider adding some Korean text.
The Bow and the Handshake
If you meet somebody who is your senior, it is customary for you to initiate the bow. Bend from your waist at about a 40 degree angle. They will respond with a smaller bow. When shaking hands, it is considered respectful to do so with both hands, not just one.