On Korea, Part 1: Confucius, Individualism, Relationships & Trust

The U.S. and South Korea have enjoyed a long security alliance, and the revised free trade agreement will be the most commercially significant agreement in more than 16 years. South Korea will likely become a major U.S. trading partner…so laying some groundwork right now, would probably be a good idea.

South Korea has been conquered time and time again through different Asian countries, they have been considered the “Irish of Asia” sharing similar histories and becoming the defensive and feisty ones of Asia, you have to wonder if there’s any red hair there. Considered to be more individualistic and emotional than their Asian counterparts, Koreans do share cultural similarities with their Japanese and Chinese invaders.

Confucius Influence: Similar to both Japan and China, they have a long respect for Confucian teachings, especially those concerning hierarchy, seniority, modesty and honor. They show respect for seniority and rank through humility and preserving face, so watch what you say! Like Japan and China, they have similar protocols for showing respect that are determine from where you sit to who starts introductions.

Individualism: Though there is a stronger presence of Christianity in South Korea, those who are Buddhists follow the Mahayana tradition. This tradition of Buddhism stresses the strength of the individual in achieving nirvana, or the end of suffering. Koreans, like many Mahayana Buddhist countries believe that the universe is beyond their understanding, and that many things are determined on greater forces, such as fate and ancestors, but that the individual has the power to achieve nirvana.

Their Korean individualism is often at odds with their group oriented culture rooted in obligations to families or groups (workers or those involved in the family business). There is a strong feeling of interdependency of among members of a group or business, the group dynamic is therefore important; harmony is preserved by saving face, avoiding saying “no” directly. While Koreans may gather information from below, and decisions may be made with consensus, nuances of individualism still play a part in the process. For example, meetings are also usually conducted with an individual, or a few people, instead of with a group, so the person that meets you in the lobby, he may hold the keys to your success in the emerald city.

Relationships & Trust: Western individualism is recognized, but the self is down played in the big picture. Relationships are really what matter, the heart of Korean society, the grease that moves the wheels. These relationships usually determine future action. With good relations comes good kibbun (kai-bon) or good feeling, which involves trust and intuitive logic. Similar to how Chinese tend to do business with those they trust, it is similar in Korea, they prefer good energy between the two companies and peoples before conducting business. However, build a network: if your only point of contact is out of favor or somehow demoted, your business prospects are looking rather grim. Network, network, network: the right people can determine success or failure.

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