Interpersonal Communication in South Korean Business Culture


Interpersonal communication can have significant meaning when it comes to international companies, who operate in a different country or have business with foreign enterprises. The culture-related knowledge about the colleagues or business partners may play a major role in ensuring communication success because the latter is a key to a productive relationship. Interpersonal interactions have the utmost importance for the establishment of the international business partnership, which is why it has become the topic of the present study. A lack of cultural awareness during such interactions may undermine mutually beneficial partnerships due to misunderstandings on serious issues.

Nowadays, South Korea seems to become a prominent business environment. This country has a long history of conducting business and has its traditions in the sphere. Despite some shared practices with other Asian countries like China, South Korea has a distinct corporate culture, which justifies the need for research into its peculiarities. The present research will focus on such aspects of interpersonal relationships in Korean business culture as verbal and non-verbal communication, specific behaviors, and meeting etiquette.

Culture-influenced verbal Communication Peculiarities

There are a few important factors to consider when engaging in conversation with Korean people in the business sphere. According to C. Lee (2012), Koreans have a term Kibun relating to a sense of stability and good manners. This cultural notion has a great value in the Korean business environment, and most people try to maintain their Kibun and be mindful of the Kibun of their colleagues. The latter is especially characteristic of Korean people’s manners, as they try to avoid refusing other people or voicing critical statements about someone’s performance because it might negatively affect their colleagues’ feelings. In the Korean business context, similarly to Chinese, it is also impolite to be very open and straightforward (C. Lee, 2012). This approach contradicts the western model of conducting official talks or engaging in conversations with employees where a precise answer is often preferable. In the U.S. and most European cultures, it is also generally accepted that working relationships should be reserved and non-offensive. Nevertheless, typical models of behavior in both informal and formal environments do not include evading a negative answer preferring a positive-neutral variant.

Another Korean culture peculiarity is Inhwa or harmony, as defined by C. Lee (2012). This term seems to be in deep correlation with Kibun since they both underline the importance of maintaining the neutral-positive balance in the interpersonal relationship. However, Inhwa is mostly attributed to the relationships between the people of equal social standing or position in the company’s hierarchy. Nonetheless, the harmony must also be preserved between the senior and the junior staff, where loyalty and respect are expected of the latter, and the former is to be mindful of the comfort of their employees. In western business traditions, the related qualities are also deemed significant. Nonetheless, they seem to emerge rather from the historical practice, value for human capital, and moral standards than from Buddhist theological teaching.

The loyalty that is presupposed by Inhwa usually comes from the family connections and generational ruling in the company, which differs from most western companies where personal skills and professionalism is often valued more than the blood connection to someone from the senior staff. In the USA, it can also be considered discrimination when the preference is given to the candidate, who is lower-skilled than the others but has family links to the company. The absence of knowledge of these concepts may result in the lack of understanding between the negotiators and unintended insults.

Non-verbal Communication Traditions in South Korean Business Environment

The respect for the hierarchy and age is typical for Korean people, and it has transcended to informal corporate standards. It exhibits, among other things, non-verbal behavior patterns. Interestingly, the senior staff is always privileged when it comes to entering the room and receiving food in the canteens. In addition, bowing to the seniors or elders is a daily practice in Korea. In the Korean business environment, a bow is also followed by a handshake (S. Lee, Brett, and Park, 2012). Maintaining eye contact is also preferable in the country’s business culture as a sign of trust and respect (C. Lee, 2012). However, in intercultural personal communications, caution must be exercised in order not to offend Korean counterparts by performing the wrong bow. Mimicking foreign etiquette both verbal and non-verbal may be considered impolite. Therefore, the universal handshake or a verbal greeting should suffice if the guests do not know how to do it properly (Mukherjee and Ramos-Salazar, 2014).

Another factor that influences interpersonal relationships in Korean business life is the concept of Nunchi. It is the ability to read other people’s gestures and implicit meanings of words. Paying attention to the context and tuning to the emotions of others is the key to understanding your colleagues, friends, relatives, and business collaborates as well (Yang, 2014).

Many of these traditions come from the Confucian teaching that has become deeply rooted in common Korean people’s lives. The respect for elders that has emerged from it is more or less typical for all Asian cultures, and in Korea, it also dominates the interpersonal relationships at work. The Asian bowing culture can also be complex to understand for western people, even though the bowing was also present in Christian religious rituals and among European nobles in Middle Ages. Deeply philosophical Confucian doctrine even further complicates interpersonal communication on the non-verbal level. Not knowing the non-verbal factors that influence interpersonal relationships may disrupt negotiations and undermine the connection formation process.

Business meetings and partnership establishment in South Korea

In the process of building long-lasting relationships between companies, especially with foreign firms, there are also several traditional behaviors to note. South Korean businesspersons believe that the partnership is a matter of trust, and a lot of time is allocated to knowing the future partner better. Personal relationships seem to be deeply valued in the country. Korean company leaders usually decide on having a partnership based on the ties the proposed associate has with others, and a proper introduction is often in order. Such a model of conduct may arise from the Korean collectivist mindset that rarely allows strangers to be a part of the business community. On the other hand, once the trust is gained, mutual profits are soon to follow, as Korean partners will contribute to the prosperity of the whole alliance (C. Lee, 2012). Having that in mind, it may be worth consideration to invest resources in establishing that kind of trust.

The agenda of a first business meeting is usually not devoted to business matters, focusing rather on good-natured talk and complimenting each other (C. Lee, 2012). Such an unhurried manner of negotiation handling can be quite dissatisfying for the western companies, who are accustomed to value time and money, making maximum profit from each meeting. The first meeting is usually accompanied by the business card exchange, which is also a delicate procedure. The etiquette requires taking the given card with both hands and voicing gratitude. Giving a card demands that the Korean translation on it faces the person, who receives the card, in order not to offend him or her (C. Lee, 2012).

Another significant addition to the peculiarities of the Korean code of conduct is the fact that they prefer to negotiate important matters with people of similar standing in the company’s hierarchy (C. Lee, 2012). For Korean executives, it is vital to have the negotiation counterparts of equal power, regardless of their competence. Due to a strictly hierarchical company structure, senior managers usually make the final decision on most of the issues, so their statements during negotiations have the most significant weight. Nonetheless, sometimes, Korean companies exercise a team approach, and solid relationships with all the members can be crucial for following the principle of Kibun. Given the number of cultural peculiarities, the establishment of a partnership with South Korean organizations may require a lot of time and learning, which may require American and European negotiators to have lots of patience. A company that is unaware of these cultural factors of negotiation and trust-building stages is unlikely to succeed in the Korean market.

Gifting as a Ritual Part of Business

In Korean business culture, a Gift is also considered an element of building trust between individuals with a traditional style of giving and receiving it. Most importantly, the gift should be of good quality and wrapped for a person to have a chance of unwrapping it in seclusion. Secondly, the people of higher standing usually require a more significant gift than the junior employees. It is also polite to try to falsely refuse a present before accepting it (C. Lee, 2012). As compared to other Asian cultures, the approaches are similar but have nation-specific attributes. Chinese businesspersons, for example, stress the necessity of a gift to be attributed to the giver’s nation and have a deep meaning (Yuxian, 2013). In many western countries, gift-giving is often associated with bribery when it comes to domestic dealing. Nevertheless, for foreign operations, many prefer not to come empty-handed. It may be associated with the behavior of a guest. The absence of knowledge of how and what to present to Korean partners may undermine trust and cause misunderstandings.


Western and Eastern countries have always had difficulties understanding each other. However, both parties express the will to overcome these challenges judging from the number of scientific articles related to the topic. South Korean business culture seems to be a complex mixture of historically developed nation-specific traditions and most-Asian Confucian spiritual theories. Interpersonal communication both verbal and non-verbal has several fundamental notions that define its nature and set its courses like Kibun, Inhwa, and Nunchi. The way of establishing and maintaining long-term business relationships seems to be highly traditional. It requires the knowledge of certain peculiarities in the procedures like an introduction, business card exchange, negotiation, and gift-giving. Without such knowledge, Western companies are likely to be unsuccessful in creating long-lasting ties with Korean firms, yielding mutual benefit.


Lee, C. Y. (2012). Korean culture and its influence on business practice in South Korea. Journal of International Management Studies, 7(2), 184-191.

Lee, S., Brett, J., & Park, J.H. (2012). East Asian’s social heterogeneity: Differences in norms among Chinese, Japanese and Korean negotiators. Negotiation Journal, 28(4), 429-452.

Mukherjee, S., & Ramos-Salazar, L. (2014). Excuse us, your manners are missing! The role of business etiquette in today’s era of cross-cultural communication. TSM Business Review, 2(1), 18-28.

Yang, I. (2014). The informal organization of Korean companies: Implications for Korean MNCs. Thunderbird International Business Review, 56(6), 577-588.

Yuxian, Z. (2013). The politeness principles in business negotiation. Cross-Cultural Communication, 9(4), 50-56.

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