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Doing Business in Korea

Dear Professor,

I am in the middle of closing a business deal with our Korean partner in the shipping industry. Can you offer some tips on things I can say in Korea that would bring warmth and a feeling of “family” to the deal?

Desperate for a long-lasting relationship

Dear Desperate,

In Korea, business is all about the drinking …and golf. When I was a sales manager for Korean Air, I hit the links with my clients and coworkers often (with disastrous consequences).  But what I lacked on the golf course I made up for at the sashimi house.  If you have not gone to a Japanese or Korean style restaurant for the specific purpose of eating and binge drinking (which is unlikely), then you must do so immediately.

For Koreans, the hwoe-shik ?? or business outing is a way of bonding and building the team concept.  In the West, your drunken shenanigans at the office party may bring you scorn from your superiors and gossip from your coworkers. However in Korea, it is shows that you are a team player.

To us it sounds counterintuitive, but Korean people don’t trust those who don’t or won’t get drunk with them, and people who are timid about eating their food.  Boldly eat from as many of the dishes as you can stomach, it will impress them.  When the other people are finished with their glass, quickly finish your glass and offer your empty cup to them. Immediately fill that glass by pouring the bottle with two hands, or by touching the finger tips of your left hand to the inside of your right elbow (you will see this being done by the Koreans frequently). Allow them to do the same to you.

Before drinking, make salutations by saying gum-bay 검배(cheers). If you are not the boss of your company, turn your head away from the boss when you drink.  This is seen as a deep sign of respect.

-Always address the boss as Sah-Jang-neem??? and his second in command as Boo-Jang-neem부장님.  Refer to his wife as Sah-moh-neem사모님.

As the evening progresses, you can ask the boss:

Sah-jang-neem, may I call you hyung-neem?

Sah-jang-neem, hyung-neem ee-rah-go pull-aw dem-nee-kah사장님 형님이라고 불러도 됩니까?

Hyung-neem ?? means ‘older brother’ and is used by close friends. Although the term may be overly familiar, they will think it’s quaint and it will bring you closer to him, personally.

If the boss in question is from Busan or Kyoung-sang province, you can substitute â€˜heng-neem’형님 for â€˜hyung-neem‘. It is the dialect of the Busan region, and elicits joy and laughs when foreigners speak dialect. Also, it shows you know where he comes from.

When people who are younger than you call you by your name insist that they call you hyung-neem by saying:

Call me hyung-neem.  Hyung-neem ee-rah-go pull-aw chew-say-yo.형님이라고 불러주세요

Like people everywhere, Koreans are very proud of their children.  You can ask:

Do you have children? Jah-nyaw-gah ee-sum-nee-kah자녀가 있습니까?

How old are they? A-ee-dul-un myut sahl eem-nee-kah? ?아이들은 몇살입니까?

Oh How wonderful for you, you must be proud! Cho gay-sum-nee-dah좋겠습니다 A-ee-dul-un Jah-rahng-suh-rup-gate-goon-yo!아이들이 자랑스럽겠군요

Remember this is not the dry-martini hour.  This is college-style drinking.  So chug, chug chug…

Have a question for Gus? Email



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