Meetings and presentations in South Korean companies serve primarily to pass on information. As a rule, no discussions are held that lead to concrete decisions.
Each participant in a discussion will express themselves very cautiously and indirectly. This is because Gibun dictates that harmony and respect between the interlocutors are of prime importance. Instead of trying to convince others of their position, South Koreans will always be careful to avoid any confrontation. This often results in unclear statements, frequent changes of the topic or long silences in order to avoid potential disagreements.
In most cases, therefore, discussions do not follow the agenda sent out earlier but 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.
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. Therefore, you should also express yourself very carefully.
In strongly hierarchically organized South Korean companies it is of utmost importance to pay attention to the rank of the invited meeting participants. In principle, the higher the hierarchical levels of the participants, the more important the topic of the meeting.
The highest-ranking South Koreans will enter the meeting room first and sit in the middle of one side of the long conference table. To their left and right, the other employees will take their place in descending hierarchical order. The one with the least to say sits the furthest away from the leaders. Make sure that your delegation places itself according to the South Korean hierarchy levels.
The ranking officer usually appoints a meeting leader, who moderates the meeting and gives the participants the floor. It is therefore not necessarily the decision-maker who speaks, but often simply the person who speaks the best English.
In South Korean meetings, only people who are on the same hierarchical level interact with each other. No one will ever argue or comment on a superior’s opinion. If you want to know the personal points of view of individuals, the number of participants in a meeting must be kept as small as possible and at the same hierarchical level. Alternatively, you can have many one-on-one conversations.
South Koreans like to be extensively informed. Therefore, depending on the topic of a presentation, a large number of facts and figures are welcome. In addition, South Koreans use many images, film sequences and other visual elements.
In a manner similar to their communication style, South Koreans can process a lot of scattered information and gradually assemble it into an overall picture—which can lead to extremely overloaded and unstructured presentation slides that are also shown at a comparatively fast pace. Conversely, as the presenter you will be expected to present not only the essential facts but also as many details as possible.
Your South Korean listeners will not interrupt you during your presentation—and you should not interrupt a South Korean presenter either—but it can happen that some participants whisper to each other in Korean or leave the room for a phone call. Don’t let this irritate you or take this as a show of indifference. Frequent nodding, on the other hand, means that you are being listened to carefully. But be careful, this does not mean approval as a nod does in various other cultures!
It is a good idea to keep minutes in meetings with South Koreans. It will help you to better process the high flow of information. You can also propose to review the protocol with all participants in case any additions might be necessary.
You should not expect any concrete decisions by the end of a meeting or presentation and should not force them either. You’d only be jeopardizing harmony. Your South Korean partners will withdraw and discuss the matter further internally. Ultimately, the authority to decide lies with the highest ranking manager, who will inform you in due course. Patience is your top priority here.
After a meeting in a more formal setting, South Koreans will propose to have dinner together. This helps to build the relationship, especially if difficult questions are still unsolved. Do something to foster harmony before returning to the conference table the next day.