What Makes Koreans Tick

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Discovering What Makes Koreans Tick

Author: Matthew MacLachlan

Speed of change

Looking out over the Han river, from the top of Seoul's Grand Hyatt Hotel, one of several in Seoul which tonight will have no vacant rooms, the evidence of bustling economic activity manifests itself in a frenzy of construction activity.

That the same tract of land was rice paddies only 30 years ago and just 50 years ago, almost the entire country was reduced to a pile of rubble by invading North Korean and Chinese forces, should remind anyone that the speed of change has been extraordinary.

Korea has a well established reputation of being a 'difficult' market and it is true that, in the past, successive Korean governments have pursued protectionist policies, but any market is made more difficult, if those trying to gain access have not bothered to learn the prevailing rules.

There is, of course, no single factor which determines whether a business will prosper here, but awareness of the cultural background of a country must, as in all of East Asia, come very high on the list.

Cultural rules

Most visiting businessmen have been advised, or have read somewhere, that it is essential to carry business cards, that they should be translated into Korean and that they should be presented formally, preferably with both hands. Most come prepared to take off their shoes when entering a traditional Korean restaurant or somebody's home. These rules are important and are addressed at cultural awareness programmes, but on their own; they only scratch the surface of what are far more complex issues.

The real key to operating successfully in Korea is to try to understand the way in which your counterpart thinks and what he expects from a business relationship. Only then can you decide if your objectives are compatible. If they are not, it may be preferable to look for an alternative partner.

To reach this level of understanding, it is essential to understand the society in which the individual has been brought up, the educational system which moulded him, the family and business relationships within which he operates, the hierarchies which govern those relationships and his ambitions, not only for himself, but for his family and his business.


In Europe, religion is normally treated as something personal and certainly not discussed in the workplace. Most Westerners coming into Seoul for the first time are bemused to see the night sky of Seoul, lit up by red neon crosses atop buildings, which look suspiciously like churches. Well, those crosses are Christian churches; 40% of the Korean population profess themselves Christian and Korea now sends missionaries to Europe. Not only that, Koreans often wear their religion very openly on their sleeve. Many tithe their income, sit silently in prayer upon entering a room, say grace before eating.

The point is that, if you do not appreciate the history and status of religion in Korea, it is quite possible to visit Seoul in an attempt to 'form a relationship' with somebody, and to depart, without having even tried to explore with him one of his principal motivators.

Loyalty to individuals

Koreans can be ruthless negotiators and formidable businessman, but they are also exceptionally loyal to those whom they trust. This loyalty tends to be directed towards the individual rather than the company and this, of course, raises a whole host of complicated issues for companies when they lose their 'Korean expert'. For this reason, an awareness of cultural patterns needs to go beyond those with immediate responsibility for the market. Moreover, it is essential that when your Korean business partner visits you in your corporate headquarters, he be given the respect and courtesy that you have come to expect from him in Korea.

Original article at www.intercultural-training.co.uk

About the Author:
Programme Manager at Farnham Castle International Briefing and Conference Centre, UK. Providing intercultural training and pre-departure training for expatriates and intensive language courses for any country and any language

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