Critical Aspects of Korean Culture for Business Practices in Korea
Business practices in different countries differ greatly as a result of their cultural influences that manifest in their norms, customs, traditions and religion. South Korea harbors unique culture which influences people’s daily life as well as the business practices, and especially international business. It is important for foreigners and international corporations in South Korea to understand appreciate those cultural practices in order to work better with Korean partners and workers. This paper focuses on significant Korean socio-cultural norms that affect its business practices. This including but not limited to the aspects of religion, language, non-verbal communication, contrasting cultural values, negotiation techniques and business etiquette in Korean perspective. The paper covers vital aspects within Korean culture which includes: Inhwa, Kibun, and Confucianism. These cultural aspects play a critical role in the way business is conducted in South Korea.
Republic of Korea (ROK), which is commonly known as South Korea is a country located in the East Asia. There are six special cities and nine provinces with a total population of approximately 50 million as of 2015 (Country Reports, 2015, 7). Though South Korea has historical ties with its neighboring countries such as Japan and China, it has developed its own unique culture that differentiates it from other Asian countries. The country has preserved traditions and cultural practices that are quite distinct from the western cultures. Even though there are some cultural elements similar to Japanese and Chinese ones, there are differences in major aspects that make South Korea unique and different from the rest.
There has been major proceeding between South Korea and other western countries to create a common trading ground (Elsig & Dupont, 2012, 493). As a result, there is need for the Westerns and Americans to understand the cultural practices in South Korea in order to engage in successful business.
Critical Aspects of Korean Culture
One vital aspect in Korean culture that influences the way business is conducted in South Korea is Kibun. According to Lee (2012) basically means “a feeling of balance or mood and good behavior” (184). In the country, every one works towards achieving and maintaining their own Kibun, both in personal life and business world. It is considered impolite to distract other people Kibun. This element in Korean culture expresses the important of respecting other peoples feeling (Lee, 2012, 184). People conduct themselves with great sensitivity when handling issues affecting other people’s feeling, and sometimes they avoid saying “no” in a manner that can hurt other people’s feelings. Also, people avoid conveying bad news in manner that can hurt other people’s Kibun. Knowing this important culture is vital to maintain harmony, especially in business world.
In business activities, Koreans tend to be polite, friendly and conduct themselves much decorum, and with best intentions (Rowley, 2013, 143). In a business set up, the manager’s Kibun is damaged if the subordinates and his juniors do not show proper respect. On the other hand, subordinates or employee Kibun is damaged if the manager criticizes them in public (Lee, 2012, 185). Therefore, it very likely that Koreans will always express their opinions or feelings by giving positive and vague answers. In order to work well with Koreans, there is need to read their non-verbal communication and their body language to get the actual and intended meaning (John, 2015, 51). It is very common for the Koreans to know the meaning and intentions of others; however, it is more likely to cause misunderstanding and confusion to the foreigners.
For example, the Americans like conducting their business transactions directly. They normally present their feelings and opinion in a direct manner, with clear and straight answers. Sometime, they appear argumentative to the people from Asian countries. In this case, it is very likely that American’s will hurt Koreans’ Kibun, and thus, being difficult for the two parties to conduct and achieve vital agreements in business. However, with proper understanding of Korean culture, it becomes easy to achieve agreement on business matters (Lee, 2002, 14).
Therefore, it is needful, especially to western foreigner, to understand the culture of Kibun in order to work well with the Koreans. Understanding this culture enables Westerns interpret non-verbal body language and get the actual meaning during negotiations and business transactions. An important consideration is that Americans should avoid argumentative approach when conducting business transactions with the Koreans. The approach of paying attention to other people body language and non-verbal communication, as well as the tone of what they say is referred to as Nunchi. The interpretation of Nunchi in Korean dialectal is “eye measure”. Nunchi is the ability to perceive other person’s Kibun by the use of eye (Lee, 2012, 185).
As indicated above, people need to understand other people’s body language and non-verbal communication in order to derive correct meaning during negotiation processes. Nunchi sometimes acts as the sixth sense, as it enabes a person understand hidden meaning using visual clues (Warner & Rowley, 2014, 198). A good example is that, a Korean may ask you, “are you hungry?”, when actually he mean, he is hungry and need to eat. So answering “no” may directly hurt their Kibun. Such a question portrays how Korean considers others first in every aspect. Another example could be: if you are a manager of Korean employee, telling them they are doing are doing a certain job wrongly might be interpreted that you are not satisfied with their entire work. Therefore, from the examples above, we can note that the Korea Kibun is a significant culture that should not be overlooked by multinational organizations operating in South Korea.
Another vital element that significantly influences South Korean business culture is Inhwa, which refers to harmony (Lee, 2012, 186). South Korea is collectivist society where consensus is key element used to promote and sustain harmony (Rowley & Bae, 2004, 57). Inhwa concept was has its roots in the Confucian beliefs, and it emphasizes on harmony between people, mainly unequals. In most cases Koreans like giving positive answers and avoid expressing direct refusals. They do not like hurting the harmonious and peaceful environment by giving negative response or refusing others to cause face losing. Inhwa mainly exists in unequal in hierarchy, status and power. In the world of business, this term demands that subordinates remain loyal and devoted to their superiors and that superior’s show concern with the well-being of subordinates.
The Korean people believe that and individual owes total loyalty to parents and authority figures, notably rulers, seniors, and organizational leaders, as well as those who are in high hierarchical level in their hierarchy (Ip, 2009, 463). Therefore, workers or employees consider themselves as they are indebted with the same allegiance to their employers and supervisors as to their parents and family elders. In the business fraternity, Koreans show their reverence to their employers and supervisors, and habitually avoid conflicts as much as they can, if they have differing arguments. They would like to comply with the employers’ and supervisors’ commands to show their loyalty, and expect to get confirmation and approval from their employers and supervisors. Alternatively, their employers and bosses are usually concerned with the welfare of the subordinates. In honoring this mutual relationship, their employers and supervisors avoid blaming or criticizing their subordinates in public. Neither of the parties (employer or employee) would like to do anything negative to lose others’ face, which would alter the vital harmony that unites them.
Nonetheless, there is no such notion like Inhwa in Western or American nations, such as the United States. In the USA, people do not consider conflicts with other people’s opinions upsetting to the harmonious and peaceful environment (Moon & Franke, 2000). Instead, they harbor democracy, and believe that they have the right and liberty to express their different position and feelings to others, not excluding their employers and supervisors. Their culture does not impose strong loyalty as the Korean beliefs does in their working environment. They believe everyone in the working environment is equal, and feel free to express their opinions without due reservations (Moon & Franke, 2000, 57). On the other hand, the managers and supervisors are always ready to consider their subordinates’ arguments and opinions as well. They normally do not consider their subordinates’ suggestions or different opinions as a confrontation or offence to their position of authority.
Because of concept of Inhwa in the world of business, Korean style of management is categorized as “clan management”, an approach facilitated by the fact that majority of the senior managers in a specific company are related by kins ties (Lee, 2012, 186). This business atmosphere is not common in western countries. In United States, people pursue their own career based on their own interest and passion regardless of the kind of business the family have. Worst enough; there are even regulation barring members of the same family from engaging in the same business. For example, if one member of a family (such as the father) works in a financial institution such as a bank, in high ranks, such as executive president, then his children are not allowed to work in same institution as a result of policies created to tackle nepotism. Therefore, total loyalty in the business world and clan management, is not welcomed in the American institutions (Moon & Franke, 2000, 60). This makes it difficult for the Americans to work in Korean institutions. However, with proper understanding of significant cultural elements practiced by the Koreans, it becomes easy to work with them.
Koreans have a type of culture referred to as “familism’-directed culture”. In this culture, family aspects are placed at the center of major decision making (Shim, 2006, 28). There is strong family spirit and desire to maintain unity in their family relationships. Unlike the Americans who consider autonomy as a crucial aspect, the Koreans consider interdependence as a major strength in building strong relationships. Personal autonomy is not a virtue in South Korea as it is in United States. Koreans find it bewildering and quite inhuman for individuals to think of themselves as self-sufficient and separate from other family members (Shim, 2006, 30). Dependencies and close family ties are highly regarded in the Korean culture. Unlike the Americans who value debates and competitiveness, the Koreans value consensus and collaboration.
South Korea is a country with unique power distance and hierarchical culture. Normally, the eldest persons in the society are responsible for initiating significant activities, such as greetings, eating and entering a room. The juniors are expected to bow to the seniors as a sigh of respect (Kim, 2009, 90). The senior most member in a gathering is expected to sit at the center of the table, and at all times they should have their food served first. If the meal is a buffet, the seniors are expected to get their food first then the other follow. It is a show of respect for the juniors to wait for the seniors to serve their meals first. Another aspect used to express power distance is the manner in which people are addressed. In the Korean atmosphere, people do not address one another by their first name, as in United State, but they address other by their titles. This atmosphere extends to the learning environment where students address one another through their titles. Such atmosphere is rare in United States where students even address their lecturers by their first name. According to the study done by Greert Hofstede Cultural Dimensions, South Korea has a relatively high Power Distance Index (PDI), with the score of 64 (Country Reports, 2015, 13).
The high power distance/hierarchy exists, not only in the personal life, but also in the business atmosphere. Besides the way people address each other, negotiations with Koreans also reveal the power distance. For instance, senior Korean officials will not negotiate comfortably with a junior member of an American negotiating group, no matter how professional he/she may be. Koreans are exceptionally perceptive about their titles and status, and those Americans who aspire to deal with senior Korean officials should also have senior rank themselves (Rowley & Bae, 2004, 307). Therefore, in order to work together with South Korean business, American and western people must be aware of the higher power distance, and demonstrate their respect by letting the right officials negotiate the deals (Moon & Franke, 2000, 56). Alternatively, the senior leader is usually the decision maker in major business processes. However, junior members may possess more knowledge of the problem in hand, so it is important to involve them as well. They may not tender their opinion, however, until the senior official has passed verdict (Kim, 2009, 74). Therefore, American organizations should center on the decisions made by the Korean senior managers, while at the same time, engage the junior staff through appropriate procedures.
Confucianism and Collectivism
Confucianism is a basic lifestyle concept in Korean life (Lee, 2012, 187). It influences both the private lives and business world in a greater extent (Ip, 2009, 464). Confucianism is an old Chinese way of thinking that spread through much of East Asia in early days, and it is often considered a religion. It is in fact a way of living in the greater part of Korean society. Kung Fu-Tzu, who is commonly known as Confucius in Western countries, lived in China around 500 BC (De Bary & De Bary, 2009, 411). He was a revered teacher who gave his students a system of command during a period when China engaged in warfare (De Bary & De Bary, 2009, 13). He proposed five moral disciplines to oversee the five human relationships: (i) Justice and uprightness should mark the relations between ruler and subject; (ii) There should be proper relationship between father and son; (iii) dissection of function between husband and wife; (iv) The juniors should give priority to the elder; and (v) Faith and trust must dominate the relationships between friends (Kim, 2009). In short, the five disciplines points the five key relationships that spell out a Korean society; of sovereign and subject, guardians and children, husband and wife, brothers and sisters, and friend and friend. Confucianism stresses responsibility, loyalty, honor, filial goodness, reverence for age and seniority, and genuineness (Phuong-Mai, Terlouw & Pilot, 2005, 410).
In particular, Confucianism teachings influence the Korean society in many different ways, in both personal and businesswise, in aspects such as the status, societal contacts, relationships with others, etc (Rowley& Bae, 2004, 62). For instance, Korean status is defined by individual’s age, gender, education, family background, possessions, occupation, and political ideology. Social contacts significantly determine people’s success. People’s genealogy and backgrounds are vital and determine how members are treated in the social order (Kim, 2009, 73). Koreans tend to be very sociable, and their culture has a consistent emphasis on collectivism. A person is expected to regard the benefits and welfare of the whole community where he/she belongs (Rowley& Bae, 2004, 63). The South Korea, as a collectivist society like many other Asian nations, demands that people live in harmonious families. In line with the notion of Kibun, people are not supposed to humiliate others or cause others losing face in public (Kim, 2009, 81). People are expected to avoid troubling other people’s Kibun by bearing in mind the family ties. Generally, South Korean’s are more group-oriented and collectivist in nature, as expressed in their daily conduct (Rowley, 2013, 124). In business world, Confucian rituals play a significant role (Ip, 2009, 265). The impact of Confucianism to Korean business mainly exhibited in processes of decision making and negotiations. Usually, it takes a longer period for Koreans to make an ultimate decision, simply because all of the members need to consider other members wellness and values.
Dos and Don’ts
In summary, there certain things that a person working in Korean institutions or in the South Korea should basically avoid. When working with Korea employee, you should avoid open criticism. The Korean culture does not support open criticism of the junior members as it might hurt their Kibun. It very likely that Koreans will always express their opinions or feelings by giving positive and ambiguous answers in the bid to protect other’s Kibun.
Also, when working with the Koreans, you should not address them by their fast names; instead you should address them by their titles. Addressing Koreans by their fast name is considered disrespectful. It is important to avoid saying “NO” directly, but instead device other appropriate procedures of conveying your disapproval. A direct “NO” can work severely on someone’s Kibun and as a result hurt their feelings. Additionally, avoid using triangular shapes in Korea because the shape is thought to be a negative expression.
On the other hand, there are necessary thing that you should do when you working with Koreans. It is imperative to bow when saluting your seniors. Respect peoples opinion, tolerate ambiguity, be non judgmental, and display concern for others. It is important to respect hierarchies as defined by the Korean culture in order to avoid hurting other people’s feelings.
Korean culture is peculiar and significant in both personal and business world. International companies and anyone wishing to work with Koreans in business platforms should understand their cultural components and their impact in business. Keen consideration should be made when engaging in business negotiations. In most cases, the ultimate decision (in Korean atmosphere) is based on the cautious consideration of the interests and wellness of the entire team, and at the same time, sustaining the stable Kibun environment. Therefore, when negotiating with Koreans, Westerners or American should be prepared psychologically, based on the understanding of the Korean culture , and be tolerant during the negotiation procedure, or be ready to take a long period of time with more than one negotiation meetings. They must also appreciate the collectivism, and think in terms of the good of the entire group or team, to productively negotiate business with Koreans.
Learning critical aspect of Korean culture has significantly enhanced my socializing skill. The divergence in the cultures, along with application of Confucianism in major life processes has brought uniqueness when handling Koreans. The study on South Korea has enhanced my understanding on critical procedures that can be used to negotiate business deals appropriately. The study has imposed vital cultural skills such as communicating with respect, tolerating ambiguity, displaying empathy, and being nonjudgmental.
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