South Korea, otherwise know as the Republic of Korea, is a country with a booming economy, the 11th largest in the world. If you plan on doing business with Korea, here are 8 things to know before doing business in South Korea. While Korea is an extremely modern and diverse country, which is often ahead of the curve for fashion, culture, and technology, it also has very distinct etiquette that is very different from what we know in the western world, in fact, is a pioneer in technology with giants such as Samsung, automotive with Hyundai, and many other flourishing industries.
8 Things To Know Before Doing Business in South Korea
1. Age matters
In Korean society there is a great respect for elders. One of the first questions you may be asked by someone you meet is ‘how old are you?’ They aren’t being rude. They need to know so that they can express the proper respect to you. If you are younger there are a certain set of rules of how to address and act towards someone older, even if it is only by a few years. In addition, Koreas calculate age differently. Everyone is 1 the day they are born, and they turn a year older on New Year’s Day. Therefore if a baby is born in December they could be 2 years old in Korean age versus 1 month old in Western age on January 1st. However to complicate things, some use the lunar calendar (Chinese New Years), which varies each year but is usually in January or February. If you want to earn more respect calculate your Korean age and use that when introducing yourself.
2. Don’t say no to the drink
In Korean business culture it is very common for the boss to take his employees out for a drink after work, even multiple times a week. This is not seen as optional but an obligatory part of business culture. By Korean etiquette the youngest person at the table will pour drinks and serve the meal, as many restaurants are cook-it-yourself at your table. If you are the youngest person, fear not, as a foreigner you usually get a pass and someone will take this role over. It is very important to note that drinking alcohol is a huge part of this experience. Koreans are one of the biggest drinkers per capita in the world and maybe that has to do with that fact that if someone pours you a drink, it is rude if you do not drink it. And as the pourer, it is rude for them not to refill your glass as soon as it is empty. I’m sure you can see the vicious cycle this could create. And don’t be fooled by the innocuous taste of their favorite beverage soju or makoli, it can knock a punch harder than expected. Don’t be surprised to step out of a bar in the wee hours of the morning with your head spinning.
3. Accept with your hands
When accepting or giving something, whether it is a cup of water, a gift, or a document, make sure to show the proper respect. If you are giving or accepting something from someone older than you or someone with more hierarchy in the company, make sure to use two hands. If you are giving or accepting something from someone younger and with a lesser position it is okay to use one hand.
4. They aren’t all the same
Make sure not to confuse the Republic of Korea with North Korea, China or Japan. There is a very long and not very pleasant history between these countries and they could be very offended by someone drawing similarities between them.
5. No, it isn’t dog
The stereotype in many western countries is that Koreans eat dog. But although you may still be able to find some dog restaurants in some areas, there are actually laws forbidding it and most modern Koreans you will meet love dogs as pets and have never tried this particular meat. However, don’t judge. In India cows are sacred and they probably feel the same way about eating a steak as we do about eating dog. Korean food is amazing and delicious so don’t be afraid to try it all.
6. Bring a gift
If you are meeting at an office, bring a gift for the office, if a Korean invites you to their house, bring a gift, if you are going to a dinner party at a home, bring a gift, and if you are going on a first date, bring a gift. Food or snacks from your home country is generally a good choice. This is very important and you will be looked down upon as being quite rude if you forget this small gesture.
7. Sing your heart out
Noribangs, the Korean version of karaoke are private singing rooms where you can go and sing endless K-pop and classic 90s English pop songs until the sun comes out, while drinking copious amounts of soju. If you go on one of the company after work drinks outings mentioned above at least once it will be at a noribang. Don’t be surprised when a middle-aged businessman busts out the entire choreography to a k-pop song. And don’t be surprised if you are offered a lady companion for the evening to ‘sing’ with. Yes, it is what you think it is, and no you don’t have to accept.
South Korea is an amazing country with so much to offer. Their nightlife never ends, their food is amazing, and you can shop till you drop. They even have a ‘moon market’ a huge indoor and outdoor shopping neighborhood that opens at midnight so you can shop through the night. The people are welcoming and fun and interesting. So don’t stay in your hotel room, go out and explore!
Have you now more ideas about doing business in South Korea? If you want to know more about this interesting country and its culture, religion, and so on, do not forget to check the Korean Embassy to Spain, they have a lot of useful information for you!