In South Korea, things are not addressed directly, rather they are alluded to indirectly and cautiously. Allusions and suggestions play an important role and facial expressions, intonation and pauses in speech are also important information carriers. Everything has to be seen in context.
Don’t expect a South Korean to spell it out in plain language. Instead, use your powers of deduction to put together the individual pieces of mosaic to form an overall picture. Make sure to always tune in to the subtext. And keep in mind that South Koreans will also interpret a lot of what you say and how you behave. You should therefore also be very careful in how you express yourself.
Yes or No?
In South Korea, Gibun is of the utmost importance. Gibun means that the interpersonal balance is correct. Harmony between discussion partners is the first commandment.
That is why you will never get an outright “no” in South Korea; it disturbs the harmony to confront or expose the other person with a negative attitude. It is better to agree initially and then let the matter fade away later. Ask questions that are as open as possible in order to obtain the most informative statements possible from the outset.
Pay attention to evasive phrases such as “We need to think about this”. Ask your Korean partner for a report by a certain date and you will receive ” Tzs. .. yeessss. I’ll do my best”. This can basically be interpreted as “Unfortunately, that doesn’t work”. It is usually accompanied by a drawing of air through the teeth, turning the head to the side and is said in a weak voice with extended accentuation. South Koreans are trained from an early age to give out and understand such relationship saving para- and non-verbal signals.
If at all possible, avoid criticizing verbally, as you will want to avoid someone will losing face as a result. Losing face is the reason that criticism is never expressed openly and in front of other people.
It is generally accepted in South Korea not to admit to mistakes or problems, but to hide them through excuses and white lies. The other party will accept this tacitly! In favour of Gibun, shortcomings are generously overlooked.
If criticism is unavoidable, be cautious in how you voice it. Highlight a number of positive things first. South Koreans will get the point you’re making.
Gibun also forbids South Koreans from actively participating in discussions and expressing their opinions clearly. Instead of trying to convince others of their point of view, they are anxious to avoid any kind of confrontation.
This attitude results in unclear statements, frequent changes of the topic or long silences in order to skillfully avoid potential disagreements. Discussions usually take place in a circular manner. Individual topics are dropped repeatedly to be picked up again at a later time as the talks turn to another subject as soon as disagreements arise. The more you can reach an agreement in one area, the easier it will be to approach more difficult questions in another area. The only way you can slowly get closer to resolving a difference of opinion in South Korea is by finding common ground.
Remember: Communicating in a relationship friendly manner should always be your top priority in South Korea. It is important that all those present uphold Gibun for the sake of preserving harmony, saving face and reputation.