Business relationships in Korea are an essential ingredient to success. I hear you building relationships is essential for doing business everywhere, but I cannot emphasize enough, just how important business relationships in Korea are.
Developing relationships is usually done through informal social gatherings that generally involve a lot of eating and drinking. That goes for new workers joining a company and new business acquaintances.
Although sometimes these gatherings may seem informal they are also used as an opportunity to discuss business in a more relaxed and friendly way. So polite, respectful behaviour is required and expected.
Koreans feel a closer bond after they have eaten a meal and drank alcohol together. Even if you don’t enjoy drinking alcohol, try to participate in at least one toast during the meal.
If you cannot, or don’t want to drink alcohol at all, your Korean hosts will understand so don’t feel under too much pressure. But be aware that some people will view it as an essential stage in the building of relationships.
These days many Koreans don’t drink, especially for religious reasons. Just be honest and say why you don’t drink.
Simply, ‘not liking’ alcohol is not really considered a good enough reason. Health or religious reasons are.
The Dark Side of Business Relationships in Korea
There is a dark side to tax deductible business ‘entertainment’ in Korea, although it is becoming less common in business negotiations and after-work entertainment.
However, there are still plenty of establishments offering a range of services for businessmen, from karaoke clubs where young pretty girls serve you drinks, to business rooms or salons where girls will entertain and perform additional services.
Of course there are seemingly endless opportunities for hedonism in brothels and massage parlours and through escort services, which although illegal are blatantly advertised everywhere across the length and breadth of the country. Many will refuse entry to foreigners.
If you are invited to Karaoke by a business associate it will most likely be an innocent experience of poor singing and overpriced side dishes, but one should be aware that seedier establishments and practices are also commonplace.
Koreans tend to be less open about this style of entertainment with foreigners. But some businessmen believe this is the best way to create strong business relationships in Korea
Only once in my time in Korea did I find myself invited to a bar where the menu included additional human options with horrendously overpriced whisky, squid and peanuts.
Always accept dinner invitations as Koreans will have put a lot of thought into the venue and how they want to use the opportunity to conduct business with you.
Business entertaining tends to be reserved for the people directly involved, so it is not common to extend the invitation to spouses.
The host will usually order the food, and when it arrives wait until the host invites you to start.
At the end of the meal, the host will pay.
The other party can offer to pay for the second round, coffee or more alcohol, or a meal at a future date.
If you’re invited to a Korean’s home then it is a great honour and should be accepted as such.
You should take gifts such as fruit, good quality chocolates or flowers and as always present the gift with two hands.
Gifts are not opened immediately when received and will be done so later, so don’t assume your gift is unwelcome if it is swiftly placed to the side.
When it comes to settling the bill, the host will usually pay for the meal. Nevertheless, a good-natured argument over who will pay is to be expected.
It is also polite for the foreigner to offer a reciprocal dinner invitation.
On the whole, dining etiquette in Korea is similar to that of most countries.
Don’t blow your nose at the table, don’t chew with your mouth open and so on.
Although don’t be surprised if your Korean host noisily slurps on their cold noodles, it just means they are enjoying them.
Koreans also tend to use their mobile phones during meetings and dinner more frequently than you would expect in the west.
One Rule to be observed for the visiting foreigner is never leave chopsticks sticking into your rice bowl.
This represents offering food to deceased relatives, so is therefore both shocking and uncomfortable for people to see.
When not using chopsticks to eat, place them on the chopstick rests or to the side of your place setting when you are not using them.
Some more quick tips for dining to help forge good business relationships in Korea:
- Don’t serve yourself at the start of the meal or start eating before the host initiates it.
- Always put food onto your plate or bowl, from a serving dish, before eating it.
- Use only the right hand when passing food around the table.
- Chopsticks and spoons are used for eating.
- Avoid picking up food with your fingers.