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About South Korea

by: Sjaak Pappe and Erika Visser, Associate partners of Hofstede Insights

Overview

Currency: South Korean Won (KRW)
Capital: Seoul                                               
Time Zone: UTC +09:00
Official Language: Korean, Korean Sign Language
Religion: Unregistered (57%), Protestant (20%), Roman Catholic (8%), Korean Buddhism (15%)
Ethnic Groups: Korean (96%), Others (4% top 4: Chinese, Vietnamese, Americans, Thai)
Population:  51,446,201
Korea’s history has been shaped by multiple invasions from neighbouring countries. In a country where almost half the population have the same last name, you may be forgiven for becoming a little confused about who is who and what is what. Ethnically very homogenous, except for a small percentage of 4% of the population who are from elsewhere but reside in the country permanently. Korea is one of the most racially pure countries in the world. From the beginning, Korean people have been living under authoritarian regimes preventing individual thinking and behaving. Confucianism plays an important role in society as the ‘father culture’ demanding unquestionable obedience to father figures, government officials and great respect for seniors and elders in general.

Some cornerstones of South Korean culture

Family is central to Korean society, resulting in a great emphasis on unity, loyalty and respect for the elderly. The family structure provides emotional and financial support with each member contributing their time or money.

When in South Korea

Good to know

  • Always respect the hierarchy
  • Not all Koreans can understand or speak English
  • Never put your arm around someone’s shoulders
  • Remove your shoes when you enter someone’s home
  • Feet are considered dirty and should never touch other people or objects
  • Never beckon using a single finger as it is considered as a sign of disrespect
  • Make eye contact intermittently to show sincerity and attentiveness
  • Never blow your nose in public

Body Language

Physical contact is mostly seen as inappropriate in public, especially touching someone who is older, touching someone of the opposite sex or touching someone who is not a close friend or relative. When showing respect to older people, touch your left hand lightly to your right elbow when shaking hands or passing objects or documents. Koreans might laugh excessively as a sign of embarrassment.

Dress Code

Business men can wear conservative suits with a tie and a formal white shirt. Women can wear a conservative suit, avoiding tight fitting clothing as some business deals might be done sitting on the floor of a restaurant. Dress modestly to avoid offending locals. Usually the rule is to cover your shoulders and to wear trousers or skirts covering your knees. Wearing revealing clothing can be seen as a mark of poor character.
Keywords to describe South Korean culture:
Hierarchy /Family / Confucianism / Harmony / Relationships / Respect / Self-control

Expert’s Recommendation

One-on-one meetings might be arranged as opposed to group meetings, and it is important to establish a strong relationship with the contact person as they will need to sell your proposal to their company. Age and rank are very important in Korea and elderly Korean business people should be treated with the highest respect and always acknowledged before younger members of the organization. Be patient with Korean counterparts when doing business negotiations. Confucianism plays an important role in society and influences the way that business is conducted placing emphasis on frugality and loyalty, hard work and acceptance. Koreans believe that the award will come in the right time. Third-party connections are needed to help build trust and long-lasting relationships and to help culturally translate nonverbal communication. Translators might also be required depending on the level of English of your Korean business counterparts.

The Concept of Face (or chae-myun)

For over 500 years Korean people lived in a perfectly prescribed social system greatly influenced by Confucianism. This system was mainly based on sex, age, social class and official position, allowing people to treat others with formal courtesy and respect based on their position in this hierarchy. Face or ‘chae-myun’ is so powerful that it influences all parts of society including behaviour and the use of language. Speaking directly and clearly is taboo as it can have a negative impact on the family, school, company and/or the nation. Korean people thus strive to maintain face and avoid shame both in public and private, embracing qualities such as a good name, good character and being held in esteem by one's peers.

Communication

Some Koreans might be fluent in English but that might not always be the case and thus translations might be needed. Koreans are indirect communicators and thus the listener should try to read between the lines and pay attention to body language to understand the real message that is implied. Ask questions from different angles to find the relevant information as direct questions will most likely receive a positive response and not a truthful answer. Koreans might tell you what you want to hear to save face and they will not show if they have been offended. Positive news is mostly shared with superiors and negative news can be distorted to save face, and thus superiors will need to find intermediaries to find out what is really going on, on the ‘shop floor’.
 
It is impolite to use the word ‘no’ as a response and the appropriate response to a negative question is a negative response, for example: “don’t you know his number?” The answer could be “yes” (meaning “you are correct, I don’t know his number”). ‘No’ is virtually untranslatable in Korean and can cause misunderstandings leading to frustration. The Korean standard for communicating is called the ‘uishin jonshin’ meaning ‘from my heart to your heart’. This type of communication is seen as non-verbal and a type of cultural telepathy. In order to avoid confrontation and maintain harmony, Koreans will speak in vague terms that could have multiple interpretations. In a strict hierarchical society, speaking clearly and unambiguously or making critical comments can disrupt harmony and have serious negative repercussions. 

Meeting and Greeting

Korean men greet one another with a slight bow sometimes accompanied by a handshake while making eye contact. Supporting your right forearm with your left hand during the handshake is a sign of added respect. A junior person will initiate the greeting and bow while the senior person will be the first to offer their hand for a gentle handshake. Generally, Korean men will avoid shaking hands with Korean women, however, foreign women can initiate a handshake with Korean men. Elderly people should always be greeted first as a sign of respect. Avoid introducing yourself, third-party connections are recommended to initiate introductions. When meeting an older Korean counterpart for the first time, you might be asked multiple questions about your age, job and education. This is mainly to help place you in their hierarchy.

Introducing Yourself

Address people by their title alone or by both the title and family name. Kim Hyong-Sim will be referred to as Mr. Kim or Kimssi. The added -ssi suffix can mean Mr., Mrs. or Miss. Given names are not used unless a person is granted to do so. Always use professional and honorific titles.

 

Dimensions

South Korea scores 60 on the Power Distance Index and is thus a hierarchical society with unequal rights between power holders and non-power holders. Leaders have to be authoritarian and need to be directive giving instructions on what needs to be done and how it needs to be done, always checking, inspecting and delegating tasks (not power) ensuring that there is adequate resources and skill to complete tasks within a reasonable timeframe. Without checking and inspecting, staff might not ‘respect’ the task at hand and thus might not complete what they were asked to do. Power is centralized and managers count on the obedience of their team members in return for protection from the power holders. Korean people believe that their supervisors have been chosen because they have more experience and greater knowledge than those they manage and it is therefore, unnecessary, and even inappropriate for them to consult with lower-ranking individuals when making decisions. The manager/boss is expected to make decisions. Titles play an important role, and it will help Korean people place their colleagues or counterparts in the hierarchy, allowing them to give appropriate respect to superiors.
 
With a score of 18, South Korea is a highly collectivist country that is organised and centered around relationships (in-groups) rather than tasks. Family is central to Korean society, resulting in a great emphasis on unity, loyalty and respect for the elderly. Loyalty to the in-group in a collectivist culture is paramount, and overrides most other societal rules and regulations. In order to preserve the in-group, Koreans are not confrontational and in their communication a “yes” may not mean an acceptance or agreement. Communication is indirect and negative feedback hidden, staff do not want the boss to lose face and will share information a boss wants to hear rather than volunteering bad news. Staff might not have a critical thinking attitude and do not want to ask questions. If Korean staff have bad news, they will tell the boss what he or she wants to hear which creates bigger problems in the long-run. A trusting relationship and showing that a boss can patiently receive staff questions, objections and opinions can help to extract information. A boss should create a good working environment, social and business relationships for staff are mostly blurred and thus a boss should avoid competition between staff and create group incentives rather than individual bonuses. The focus should always be on relationships and not the task, and time should be invested to strengthen relationships with staff in return for their loyalty. The boss should never single out or embarrass employees as this will erode trust and disrupt the harmony.
 
South Korea scores 39 on the Masculinity dimension and is thus considered a Feminine society. Korea has the second lowest Masculinity ranking among the average for Asian countries of 53 and the World average of 50. Thailand scores the lowest with a score of 34. This lower level is indicative of a society with less assertiveness and competitiveness, as compared to one where these values are considered more important and significant. In Korea, it is not always material gain that brings motivation, but rather consensus and a good quality of life. Conflicts are resolved by compromise and negotiation. Koreans enjoy working together as a team and usually do not enjoy competitive behaviours.
 
Korea scores very high on the Uncertainty Avoidance dimension with a score of 85, indicating a preference for avoiding uncertainty. In order to minimize or reduce this level of uncertainty, strict rules, laws, policies, and regulations are adopted and implemented. The opinion of experts are important and the ultimate goal of this population is to control everything in order to eliminate or avoid the unexpected. As a result of this high Uncertainty Avoidance characteristic, the society does not readily accept change and is very risk adverse. Change has to be seen for the greater good of the in-group. For meetings: agendas can be used to inform staff what will be discussed and the boss should check staff’s ideas prior to a meeting and discuss and agree what needs to be said during the meeting to eliminate any unknown factors. The boss is looked to as the expert, making decisions on behalf of the department or office. Koreans are known for ‘doing things by the book’ with an exact process (chohng-sheek) or procedure for doing things in every aspect of life. This chohng-sheek is very much part of everyday life including formal ceremonies meetings, rituals, diplomatic protocol, etc.
 
Korea has a very high score of 100 on the Long-Term Orientation dimension, this indicates that Korean culture is long-term orientated. When establishing relationships the focus is on building long-term trusting relationships and not on short-term gain. This can be seen by the long-term relationships required in order to successfully conduct business in Korea or by the way that longer-term business plans are created looking not only at the past or present but at opportunities in the market in the future.

For a more detailed analysis on the Cultural Dimensions, and how South Korea compares to other countries, please visit Hofstede Insights’ Country Comparison tool.
 

References & Interesting Links