In South Korea, business relationships are primarily personal relationships between the persons involved. Harmony and mutual respect are equally important.
At an initial business meeting, your South Korean partners are therefore primarily interested in being able to place you in the right position. South Korean society is very hierarchically structured, and all relationships in business life are also determined by the finely differentiated differences in rank.
In addition to age and family background, the most important criteria include the exact position in the company hierarchy, length of service and training background.
South Koreans will therefore ask you directly and bluntly about your age, your family, your position in the company and even your income at your first business meeting. If you are not used to this you might perceive these direct questions as invasions of your private sphere. The South Koreans, on the other hand, use the information gained in this way purely for hierarchical classification, according to which they orient their entire further behavior.
Greeting and business cards
Because of this, business cards are exchanged right at the beginning of the first meeting. They will help your South Korean business partner to immediately identify your hierarchical position and vice versa.
Your card should therefore contain all the necessary information. It may be advisable to use a higher title for your own position than you usually would if you want to talk to the decision-makers high up in the South Korean hierarchy. In South Korea, only people on the same hierarchical level can interact with each other, so it’s worth laying the right foundations right from the beginning.
After a not too firm handshake, you should introduce yourself with your first and last name plus your position in the company. The business card is then handed over with a slight bow and accepted respectfully and studied in detail by the other person. Hand over your business card and take your South Korean counterpart’s card with your right hand while your left hand supports your right wrist. This is a sign of respect. Alternatively, you can hand over or receive the business card with both hands, but never only with your left hand!
Don’t just slide a business card into your jacket pocket, but carefully place it in a case or in front of you on the conference table. Your business cards should also be in perfect condition, preferably hot off the press because they represent both you and your professional status.
If you arrive as a delegation or meet a South Korean group, make sure that the participants of the hierarchy are greeted according to their status. In South Korea, the highest rank is always welcomed first and there is no ladies first! Don’t necessarily shake hands with a lady either, just bow respectfully.
External appearances are as important as a meaningful business card at the first business meeting. The dress code for this meeting is conservative branded business clothing. For men, a dark suit with a long-sleeved shirt and tie plus polished shoes is the norm. No matter how warm it is, only take off your jacket when the highest-ranking South Korean at the meeting does so.
Women should also wear discreet colours. A business suit with a skirt is preferable to a trouser suit. Make sure that you don’t show too much decollete and that your arms are covered.
Status symbols, such as designer labels, expensive watches or even a car with a chauffeur also contribute to being placed as high as possible in the social hierarchy that is so important in South Korea.
After the initial greetings, introductions and personal questions about your position in the hierarchy, the rest of your first business meeting in South Korea will be about the people present and not about the project or the product to be sold. Perhaps you would like to give a short company presentation, with a focus on the senior managers, references from other companies and maybe even some outstanding best practice examples that underline your company’s reputation. All further discussions serve exclusively to get to know each other.
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. Without having successfully established this personal level, joint business is unthinkable.
During your stay in South Korea, you should therefore always count on going out to extensive dinners and subsequent bar visits, during which you will drink a lot and sing karaoke together. Leisure activities such as day trips are also on the program.
The goal of this socializing is to identify common ground and points of contact. Often seemingly trivial things such as coming from a region that your South Korean counterparts are familiar with or having the same hobby can be of great importance in establishing common ground.
Don’t expect any concrete results from a first business meeting in South Korea. Instead, consider the meeting as the beginning of a longer period of getting to know each other. The time invested in the beginning will pay off later through smoother negotiations!