South Korea is a country in North-East Asia, bordering China in the South and West, North Korea in the North, Japan in the East and feeling a lot of influence and proximity from Russia in the North as well. The country is not very well-known in the Western world, except of course for being the home base of Samsung, LG and Daewoo and their presence to North-Korea (with whom they are officially still at war since 1953). The younger generations for sure know the country for the spread of K-pop music.
The culture of South Korea – although Asian for many of its characteristics – stands out in the East. The South Korean culture for sure in many characteristics is very different from its neighbors China and Japan as well. Many Dutch business people will refer to South Korea as a problematic culture to deal with. They will often cite the harsh negotiation tactics the South Koreans make use of, and they will explain that many business processes in Korea are somewhat mysterious: the rules of logic and ration often do not seem to work her
This article is not a guide to doing business with South Korea, but it highlights five aspects in which the South Korean culture is a bit special and stands out from other Asian cultures:
- Masculine culture
- Informal networks
Personal relationships in Asia are more important than in the western world. Building up trust is essential if you want to do business with someone, and especially in collectivistic cultures, relationships with people who belong to the same in-group are such that harmony is maintained within the group. In Chinese society (and in many others) the wisdom of Confucius dictates that relationships in society should be well-organized in order to maintain stability. Here, relationships between father and son, teacher and student, etc. are well-defined.
Korean society is very strictly organized along these lines. ‘Inhwa’ describes how people should behave in unequal relationships, where it is expected that you deal very respectfully with people who are ‘superior’ to you and that you keep relationships harmonious, whatever it takes. The consequence is that employees will always be loyal to the superiors in their company. It can go as far as delaying or avoiding to give bad news, as it would impact the relationship negatively.
Even when relationships between people do not involve hierarchical differences, kibun still dictates that you deal with each other is a harmonious way. Kibun has to do with pride and comes together with a peaceful state of mind. Maintaining your own ‘kibun’ is one: ensuring that someone else’s ‘kibun’ is maintained is as important.
It is crucial to act in such a way that everybody is peaceful and undisturbed. People always ensure that they do not bring somebody else in a difficult position where they can lose face; hence interpersonal relationships are carefully dealt with in daily interactions. Keeping these signals of respect and peacefulness to others is of such importance that external politeness in Koreas society takes precedence over speaking the truth at all times.
Where inhwa is relevant in unequal relationships, injung applies to all relationships you are in. It is often described as the glue for relationships: injung creates a bond between people of all sorts. Rather than a fixed set of behaviors and formal obligations, injung is spontaneous and involves feelings of warmth and affection.
A basic human quality is to inject injung into all relationships. And although injung is a beautiful concept, it can be highly confusing to westerners who expect that interactions in society are defined by logic and ratio. Injung is a human and emotional state that does not follow the rules of logic. Somebody who is not able to keep injung in relationships may not advance far in his career: the concept can be far more important that skills and capabilities in a job.
4. Masculine culture
Although Hofstede’s dimensions of culture put Korea at the feminine side of the masculinity-femininity scale, the country and it’s people are perceived by foreigners as very masculine. This displays in reserved, cautious and sometimes even hostile behavior towards outsiders they have not dealt with before. Also in negotiations Koreans come across as determined, competitive and sometimes merely rude.
R.D. Lewis in his book ‘When cultures collide’ describes: “The Korean collective experience is that compromise leads to defeat, and second place spells disaster. They are very competitive and look for advantages that help them achieve their goals. Foreigners often perceive this as ‘win-lose’-tactics.
5. Informal networks
From the above descriptions of inhwa and kibun, you get the impression that Korean society is very formal and organized. And it is. As a foreigner, you will not understand all the unwritten rules and the details of the proper behaviors. However, interactions in Korean society – and business – for sure are very formal, well organized and give the impression that when something cannot be done according to the formal (unwritten) rules, it won’t happen.
The latter, however, is not valid. This is because there is an informal network that relies on personal trust and personal connections. Once you have gained the confidence of your Korean partners, a lot will be possible that would not happen if you would only rely on formal interactions. Building trust is done through revealing things about yourself and investing time in building up the relationship, and showing that you are willing to make the Koreans win and get better. Once this trust is earned and things turn out difficult in your formal business meetings, it is essential to go off-line (smoking breaks, Karaoke rooms) and arrange things with your well-trusted Korean partners.
There certainly is a lot more to say about the business culture of Korea, but the above five principles give a good insight into why South Korea is not just ‘another Asian country.’ Korea is different, and likes to be seen as such. My program “Business Culture of Korea” is a 6-hour workshop that comes with all the ins and outs about the Korea business culture. It comes with a cross-cultural handout that focuses specifically on South Korea, a questionnaire to test your knowledge of the Korean culture and support with any questions you may have in your daily work about the business culture of South-Korea.