On Korea, Part 2: Introductions, Communication, Face & Flexibility

Introductions: No touchy! As with most Asian cultures, Korea is also a non-touching culture, so wait to be introduced to Korean colleagues. Business cards are typically exchanged, with similar practices of presentation as mentioned in previous countries (in the native language, use of both hands in presentation, accompanied by a slight bow, etc.), concluding with the Korean handshake, with what is known as “elbow support.” The Korean handshake is similar to China’s in its limp grasping of the other’s hand, but only using one hand (instead of two). “Elbow support” is when your right hand is extended, your left hand grasps your lower (extended) right arm. Caught ya! Be honest, you just tried to do it! The gesture has come to mean extra sincerity; it is a Korean gesture of hospitality and welcome; gifts, drinks, documents, and meals are given and received in the same manner. Women, do not expect Korean men to offer their hand first, you have to take the initiative; conversely Korean women may prefer not to shake a Westerner’s, particularly a man’s, hand. As you leave for the next leg of your journey throughout South Korea, a small farewell bow is expected to every individual present, though some younger staffers may wave.

Communication: Many older Koreans do not speak English, and since age is revered here, those people are probably the big players, but some young people may, since it is widely taught in schools. A translator may suit your purposes better, if you want to play it safe. A note of caution, Korea and Japan have some bitter relations, due to their history of invasion, so refrain from using your Japanese here, unless you represent a Japanese company.

Face, Silence, and Flexibility: Like China, context is important in South Korea, but allows for confrontational speech. Let’s be clear, direct, but not blunt…we are still trying to save (your) face here! While Koreans may say what they feel (remember, “Irish of Asia”), they are still mindful of preserving face and avoid being disrespectful (oh, Confucius!).  Koreans are also practitioners of silence, which they see as a proactive form of communication. Silence may be due to confusion, or lack of full understanding, or may be utilized to practice evaluate you and try to figure out what you are thinking  or feeling, a mind-reading process (all about saving face). As Westerners we tend to prefer noise, of some sort, even background noise, instead of silence. Suppress your urges and be silent! You don’t want to give more information than you are willing because you were looking to fill the void. The use of visual aids—pictures, graphs, numbers, charts—can be used to avoid confusion. When you are ready to sign “contracts” with Koreans, they are similar to China where these “contracts” are really “memorandums” where they outline how business partners intend to work together, in ever changing situations. This is a relationship: good business partners take care of each other.

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