9 Must-Follow Rules for Korean Business Etiquette

By OptiLingo • 8 minute read

south korean business etiquette and culture is important to learn

The Importance of Business Etiquette in South Korea

Whether you’re building Korean business relationships, or you’re planning to work in South Korea, you need to know the rules of Korean business etiquette. Business culture in Korea is much different from Western business culture. The last thing you want to do is accidentally offend a potential business partner. To keep that from happening, it’s crucial you understand these differences, and avoid the faux pas of Korean business behavior.

9 Rules to Follow for Basic Korean Business Etiquette

Confucianism is deep-rooted in Korean culture. This means that respect for age, authority, and education is very important in Korea. However, modern Koreans don’t adhere to the principles of Confucian as strongly as the previous generations did. Still, these principles form the basis of many rules and practices of doing business in Korea. The steps below will highlight everything you need to make a lasting professional impression.

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1. Respect Age and Status

Hierarchy affects all forms of social interactions in Korea. Having respect for status and age is crucial in Korean culture. Hierarchy means that everyone has a role to play in society therefore it is important to respect the role that everyone plays.

Koreans get very comfortable when they interact with a person they consider their equal. A number of factors such as marital status, role in an organization, and which university a person attended determine status in Korea.

2. Bow and Shake Hands When Appropriate

Koreans bow to their seniors as a sign of respect and greeting. The junior person will always initiate the bow. The bow is usually deep and the senior person will slightly bow to acknowledge the greeting and respect shown.

two men bowing, showing proper korean business etiquette

When meeting a group of Koreans, greet the individual with the highest status first then proceed to greet the oldest person. You’ll note the individual with the highest status because they always enter the room first.

Shaking hands when meeting someone for the first time has become common in Korea these days. However, it hasn’t completely overtaken bowing which in certain circumstances may happen during or before a handshake.

You can slightly bow during a handshake and break eye contact. You can have a firm handshake similar to the one offered by your counterparts, but it’s advisable if yours is gentler.

To show great respect during handshakes, a person with a lower status can shake using both hands or they can place their hand across their belly or support it at the forearm.

Korean women might bow instead of offering a handshake. That’s the norm because, in a formal business setting, it’s considered appropriate when women maintain a certain distance from men.

3. Have Your Business Card Ready

Have your business cards ready for exchange during initial meetings. Koreans love to understand status. A business card allows them to have a chance to assess the title, rank, and position of their potential business partner. Before sitting down for your meeting, politely give your business hand with both hands and take one in return.

Don’t put the card in your pocket. Instead, quickly review the titles, positions, and names on the card. When you sit down, remember to place the business card on the table and pick it up when the meeting ends.

A business card will show that you are organized. Remember to always have clean cards ready (and provide translated versions of your card to your business counterparts when necessary).

korean business etiquette has business cards

4. Give Appropriate Gifts

Gifts are always welcome in Korea because they symbolize the importance of a relationship. However, be considerate when gifting. If your gift is very expensive and the person receiving cannot afford to reciprocate, you can be viewed as inconsiderate.

Red and yellow are loyal colors. Wrap your gifts in these colors. You can also wrap your gifts in yellow or pink because these colors represent happiness. Never use white or black wrapping paper and never sign a card using green or red ink.

Always carry gifts with you when invited to a Korean home. Gift ideas for such occasions include flowers, chocolates, or fruit. Remember to hand over the gifts using two hands and understand that the gifts will be opened later and not immediately when received.

Keep in mind that South Korea holds anti-graft laws since 2016. This means, that your gift to public officials can’t exceed a certain amount. Journalists, private school teachers, and their spouses can’t accept meals of more than 30,000 won (about 27 USD). And there are limits for gifts of 50,000 won (about 45 USD) – 100,000 won (about 90 USD) at private events such as weddings and funerals. 

5. Use Family or Given Names Properly

During initial meetings, it’s best that you use a Korean family name when speaking to your business partner directly or when speaking about them when talking to another Korean. However, when you get to good terms with your counterparts, you can use their given name.

There are settings that are very formal and require great respect. These vary in nature, but it will be clear to you that it’s not a casual meeting. In such settings, use the formal title and the surname of your counterpart when addressing them. And if you’re not sure, always err on the side of caution and stick to the formal greetings.

6. Build Strong Professional Relationships

Relationships are crucial when conducting business in Korea. You can develop these relationships during informal social gatherings. Oftentimes, such informal social gatherings would involve alcohol. Drinking is a huge part of Korea’s business culture and is often considered the easiest way of relieving work stress and forming closer bonds with colleagues or business partners.

soth korean business etiquette includes handshakes

7. Dress in Professional Business Attire

Appearance is vital in Korea. Koreans dress more formally, have very conservative business attire, and don’t focus much on individual expression. Men should dress in white shirts with ties and dark-colored suits. Jewelry should be kept at a  minimum, (such as a watch and a wedding ring). Women are advised to dress conservatively in colors and patterns that aren’t too vibrant or distracting.

8. Prepare Yourself for Business Dinner Invitations

Dinner is the biggest meal of the day in Korea and usually happens between 7 pm and 9 pm. Business dinners in Korea are strictly for the people doing business, so you should not extend the invitation to your spouse or partner. The host usually orders food. And be prepared, all the food usually arrives at the same time to the table.

Wait for the host’s invitation before you start eating your meal. When passing food around the table, use your right hand. It’s important to note that Korean cuisine has both extremely spicy and mild dishes. So, if you don’t like the heat, be careful.

Koreans generally like being quiet during a meal to ensure that they fully concentrate on their food. Conversations are held after the meal over tea or coffee.

The host always pays for meals; however, a good argument may arise over who is to pay. Remember it is considered polite when a foreigner offers a dinner invitation to reciprocate the kindness of the hosts.

Adopting these tips during your next business dinner will show your potential partner or current boss that you respect the Korean culture. This will help you build stronger relationships that are crucial for lasting success in your business.

9. Speak Korean

If you truly want to impress your Korean business partners, you should learn Korean. Even a few words can already make a positive impression. Learning a foreign language shows loyalty and appreciation. Most importantly, it can go a long way to benefiting you both as a person and as an employee. And if you want to learn Korean fast, you should use OptiLingo.

OptiLingo is a convenient language learning app that gets you results fast. By showing you high-frequency phrases, you can learn exactly how the locals speak. And with built-in pronunciation guides, you can start building your speaking skills from the first lesson. Each lesson will give you the confidence you need to speak fluently and impress your Korean business partners.

Vital Tips to Doing Business in Seoul

Seoul is the vibrant and dynamic capital of South Korea. It has amazing internet connectivity, numerous innovation hubs, and it’s the home for many startups. However, you should also be aware that a few bigwigs stand taller than most businesses in the city. These businesses are known as chaebols.

How Influential Are Seoul’s Chaebols?

Chaebols are companies that played a critical role in liberating Korea from poverty after the Korean war. However, in the years that followed, they installed a hierarchical system that forms a major part of the Korean business etiquette.

The key characteristic of Chaebols is that their businesses are family-owned and operated. These corporate giants control a huge part of the Korean economy and greatly influence the cultural and political aspects of Korea. Due to this influence, key positions in the corporate world are not earned but rather given out in a type of “structured” nepotism.

korean business etiquette is thriving in seoul

The leading chaebols are the SK Group, Samsung, Hyundai, and LG. The media in South Korea and some international agencies refer to them as the “Big Four.” And you can feel the impact of these companies throughout South Korea.

While these aren’t the only chaebols that influence the economy of South Korea, you need to understand the major players when doing business in Seoul. Businesses thrive on personally built relationships with these leading companies. And sustaining these relationships, proving that you are a respectable business partner with a good character that reflects the values of Korea, is the key to success in business.