Go elsewhere to read up on how to shake hands, bow, address people by their proper titles, or exchange gifts. If you’re non-Korean, you’re not expected to get 100 percent of the formalities correct anyhow. Instead of sweating the details, make sure you avoid triggering negative emotional landmines.
Every business deal or arrangement will have its own terms so each interaction will be unique. Put your best foot forward because being earnest, respectful and positive are recognized no matter the cultural difference. However, what doesn’t change are some underlying currents that are present in most Korean organizations. When you wade into the waters, here are some tips so you can distinguish the ripples from the rip tides.
1. There’s No Free Lunch
Koreans make a wonderful first impression and in large part, it’s due to their generosity of time, money, gifts, assistance and other resources. They are trying to establish trust and let you know that they have skin in the game. However, once you accept these overtures, there will be an expectation of reciprocity. That’s why sometimes you’ll see Korean people refuse to accept gifts because they know there’s a burdensome responsibility to pay it back one day. Or more commonly, people responding with even more gifts (even if it’s time, attention or favors). If you see a lot of back and forth of people doing ‘really generous’ things for each other, know that there’s a calculated game of one hand washing the other at play.
2. Envy and Jealousy
In an authoritarian system where there’s only one way to success and just a chosen few who get to enjoy the spoils of victory, there will be rampant vectors of envy and jealousy among colleagues, departments and rivals. Your actions may inadvertently add insult to a strained situation. Or you may be used as a pawn to alleviate someone’s envy by making them look better.
If you notice Korean people being very ‘hesitant’ before speaking, it’s not because they’re shy. It’s because there are too many damn chess pieces on the board and they’re trying to calculate how their words will alter the game. Who will get offended or triggered by what they say? Will they get trapped in an unnecessary crossfire? They have to keep the active scorecard of who hates whom and why and for what reason even if it’s decades old. All these thoughts are going through their heads before they open their mouths.
Would it help if people would stop being envious and jealous? Damn right. But until more people wake up, gird your loins.
3. Don’t Step into Someone Else’s Revenge Politics
Somewhat related to the second tip, don’t get roped into someone else’s revenge politics. Constrained hierarchical systems disfavor checks and balances, so there’s constant abuse of power. That means whenever the lunch bell rings, a new enemy gets his wings.
All this latent resentment and anger will activate backstabbing and betrayal the moment someone gets a chance or if the winds shift the power structure. Try to calculate whether your participation is based on a business-first decision or a revenge mission. Often it’s the blend of the two.
And somehow that’s the engine of Korea. There’s nothing more that gets people focused, motivated and driven to one goal than following the leader’s campaign to avenge his enemies.