The Korean Wave (Hallyu) refers to the global popularity of South Korea’s cultural economy.
Hallyu is a Chinese term which, when translated, literally means “Korean Wave”. It is a collective term used to refer to the phenomenal growth of Korean culture and popular culture encompassing everything from music, movies, drama to online games and Korean cuisine, just to name a few.
With the onset of Hallyu, more Korean companies have internationalised, popping up in countries including Singapore. Among industrial sectors, the gaming, tourism, fashion, and food and beverage sectors grew most notably.
So with these Korean players in town, local entrepreneurs are more likely to deal with Korean companies and clients.
Understanding cultural differences and overcoming language barriers are some of the considerations people should have when dealing with business with people of various cultures.
Often, business deals are lost because the parties involved did not take the time to learn about each other’s cultures prior to interacting.
Here are some golden tips on how Singaporeans can better establish friendly relations with them and successfully seal that business deal – from arranging the first meetings, understanding why some Koreans may ask you personal questions, the practice of gift giving, and nurturing the relationship over food and drinks.
1. Tips for First Meetings
Make a business meeting appointment a few weeks in advance, and ensure that you are punctual. If you know that you will be running late, do call ahead to inform.
When meeting a potential Korean business partner for the first time, it is better for a third party to introduce you, rather than having to introduce yourself. The most senior person will initiate the handshake.
Use both hands to present and receive a business card, and emphasise your title so that you can establish your status or rank upfront as Koreans generally prefer to deal with someone of at least equal rank.
When you receive a business card, read it carefully and place on the table in front of you instead of stuffing it in your pocket or scribbling on it!
2. Understand Why Some Koreans May Ask Personal Questions
Once you have established contact with a Korean business partner or client, it is important to nurture that relationship.
Dr. Kim Sang-Woo from East Asia Cultural Project (EACP) – who was also a lecturer for Inter-Korean Relations and East Asian Relations – shared some business and cultural insights to develop Korean business relationships with attendees at a recent e2i’s Taste of East Asia Korean masterclass.
Dr Kim, who was an adviser to former Korean president Kim Dae-Jung, said Koreans hold firm to Confucian traditions, which emphasise “respect for education, authorities and those who are older.”
“Although modern Koreans may not adhere to Confucian principles as rigidly, these principles continue to form the foundation of many customs and business practices,” he added.
Given this Confucian influence, Koreans intuitively establish hierarchical relationships based upon the age, position, status and educational background of other people relative to themselves.
“Do not be surprised if you’re asked questions about your age, marital status or educational background,” Dr Kim advised.
Although these questions are considered by many to be personal in nature – and unrelated to business – they are a tool used by Korean businesspeople to place you within this hierarchical structure.
3. Korean Practice of Gift-Giving
According to Dr. Kim, gift-giving is a common practice when doing business in Korea. The gifts given at the first meeting are intended to acquire favours and to build relationships.
“Wait until your host has presented his gift and use both hands to accept it. The gifts exchanged should be of similar value, with that of greatest value going to the most senior person,” he said.
Ideal gift sets include liquor, rice cakes and cookies, or health products such as red ginseng tea. However, it is important to note that there are different rice cakes to gift for different occasions as each type holds different meanings, emphasised Dr. Kim.
Garae tteok (white, long, plain rice cake) symbolises longevity and is usually given during New Year’s Day; baeksolgi (white snow rice cake) represents purity and is given during a child’s first birthday; and patsiru tteok (red bean steamed rice cake) is given to neighbours when they move into a new place as a sign of peace offering.
The past few years, South Korea has earned a bad reputation for its corruption culture.
Following the spate of charges pressed against business people and those holding influential positions, the Government has imposed an anti-graft law last year, which prohibits improper solicitations and illegal giving of money or goods and services.
There are some exceptions to the prohibition on graft such as the “30/50/100 rule.” For example, food, drinks and snacks should not exceed 30,000 won in value. Gifts should not exceed 50,000 won and congratulatory, condolence money, flowers and wreaths are allowed up to 100,000 won in value.
“Gifts are still part of the business culture and from a Korean point of view, not considered a bribery. A small gift is considered an icebreaker in relation to a business meeting,” said Dr. Kim.
4. Boosting Business Relationships By Dining And Drinking Together
In Korea, it’s said that the success of your business roughly correlates to how well you can drink – and how respectful you are to your companions while downing shots of alcohol.
Most companies in Korea have hoesik (literally, dinner with coworkers; figuratively, official eating/drinking fests involving multiple rounds at multiple venues) at least once a month and sometimes every week.
“For Koreans, drinking is considered a way to get to know what someone is really like,” said Dr. Kim.
Besides drinking, eating is also an important element of building relationships and bonding in Korea.
Dr. Kim shared that it is common for the host to foot the bill for a meal so you should not insist on ‘going Dutch’ to come across as fair. Sharing the cost of a meal in a business setting is unheard of in Korea, he added.
He also noted several rules one should observe when dining with Koreans. For example, you should not hold your rice or soup bowl in your hand during the meal.
You should also be careful to not rest your spoons and chopsticks on any bowl or dish, or hold them together in one hand.
Other table manners revolve around Koreans’ hierarchical relationship culture as mentioned earlier. For instance, younger people should not pick up their tableware before those older, and wait for them to start eating first.
Mind Your Business Etiquette
Understanding business culture helps you to understand, anticipate and respond to unexpected behaviour. It also ensures that you behave in an acceptable way and avoid misunderstandings.
As South Koreans and Singaporeans both share the same Asian values such as hard work and respect, we should not be experiencing any major disconsonance or a culture clash.
Nonetheless, as Koreans take a strong pride in their traditional culture, they greatly appreciate it when foreigners (including Singaporeans) make an effort to show respect to their social conventions.
All in all, I’m grateful to have learnt these valuable tips from Dr. Kim himself, and I believe that these tips will come in handy for future business dealings.
Dr Kim’s masterclass was among one of several which took place under the Employment and Employability Institute’s (e2i’s) Taste of East Asia event on 25 and 26 May 2017, where F&B professionals had the golden opportunity to learn from the experts themselves.
The Asian Masters specialise in different food areas, from Japanese sake, to Korean kimchi, Ceylon pure tea, to Chinese tea.
The diversity and deep experience of the Asian Masters imparted useful knowledge, skills and experience to the various F&B professionals who attended the event.
If you are keen to ‘level up’ and upgrade your skills, e2i has various workshops and courses in line for you to tap on. To learn more, visit e2i’s website here.
This article is written in collaboration with e2i to help trade professionals upskill and network via trade events such as curated masterclasses.
Featured Image Credit: World Recreation Educational Association