One of the four Asian Tigers that has demonstrated unprecedented economic growth since the 1960’s, South Korea has become a world leader in global trade and investment. This peninsular nation has the 12th largest economy worldwide, dominating the technology sector as businesses such as Samsung and Kia develop industrial and innovative prowess.
Unsurprisingly, Korea is also home to the digital revolution, tweeting at twice the world average and pioneering television on mobile devices. Eun-mee Kim, a professor of communications at Yonsei University in Seoul, affirms that in South Korea, “all things digital symbolize an advanced lifestyle. Korea may have a very long history, but people value new things more than anything else.” This enthusiasm for the digital avant-garde and technological innovation has propelled Korean industries to the forefront of the world economy.
Powered by a talented, highly competitive labor force that is always looking forward, the Korean business world is a dynamic environment attracting worldwide attention. If your business ventures bring you to this flourishing Asian Tiger, here are three key insights into Korean culture that will help make your trip a success.
1. Pali-pali! Business on the Go: Korea’s high-speed economy is characterized by a sense of urgency, epitomized by the Korean expression pali-pali, or “faster, faster!” Many Westerners remark that in Korean business, there is an unmistakable emphasis on expediency when developing partnerships or new proposals. This is explained by the fierce competition that motivates businesses to continually innovate. Also, many Koreans prefer to conduct meetings either in person or via Skype. Face-to-face interaction quickly builds trust and loyalty, known as chung, needed to close the deal.
2. Chaebols: Professionals working in Korea will want to familiarize themselves with the structure and function of chaebols, the family-owned multinational industrial conglomerates such as LG Group and Hyundai. Government-encouraged corporate arrangements foster the growth and development of these companies, dominating industries from automobile construction, to shipping, to consumer electronics. There are currently 13 chaebols that hold privately-owned or publicly traded companies, and their success is a testament to Korea’s globalization and expedient innovation. Chaebols recruit Korea’s top-tier graduates, reflecting the national value placed upon achievement and innovation.
3. Honoring Hierarchy: Korea’s ancient Confucian tradition and the dominance of family-owned chaebols make seniority and hierarchy a preeminent characteristic of Korean business relationships. Businesses tend to implement a centralized, vertical hierarchy in which decisions pass from the top executives to the subordinates, who are responsible for executing the decision.
Long term relationships based on kinship, education, and birthplace are often crucial factors in hiring and promotional decisions. Some companies are beginning to hire employees based on merit and specialization. When doing business with Koreans, and in Korea, remember to respect elders, honor the hierarchy, use formal titles, and defer to the authority of top executives and CEOs. Your observance of Korean tradition will go a long way in building trust, inspiring respect and long-lasting business relationships.
Korea is a unique nation whose powerhouse economy is constantly on the move. Working with Korean businesses requires a willingness to understand the cultural nuances that define this vibrant nation. Whether you’re signing contracts in Seoul, working on a multicultural team, or meeting with the head of a chaebol, these cross-cultural tips will help you succeed in your business endeavors.
Sharon Schweitzer, J.D., is a cross-cultural consultant, an international protocol expert and the founder of Protocol & Etiquette Worldwide. She is accredited in intercultural management, is the resident etiquette expert for CBS Austin’s We Are Austin, regularly quoted by BBC Capital, Investor’s Business Daily, Fortune, The New York Times, and numerous other media. She is the best-selling, international award-winning author of Access to Asia: Your Multicultural Business Guide, named to Kirkus Review’s Best Books of 2015 and recipient of the British Airways International Trade, Investment & Expansion Award at the 2016 Greater Austin Business Awards.
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