What is unique about doing business in Korea

When we received an e-mail stating that our start-up was selected by CzechTrade to participate in a Czech AI delegation to Seoul, we were thrilled. Being aware of the uniqueness and differences of doing business in Korea, we definitely wanted to avoid any faux pas. Therefore, we had done some cultural habits practice. And if you are going to negotiate with Koreans, you should do it too.

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1) Always bow when you greet a person. Do not shake hands

This rule is easier to said than done. Korean business is continuously changing and so the habits of people. While introducing to each other at the first meeting, I kept thinking about the correct behavior. I started actively bowing to a senior manager, and my Korean counterpart did a half-step towards me to shake hands. This opposite movements created a situation where we almost kissed each other. I began to laugh to this misunderstanding, which made the situation even more bizarre and awkward. When this happened for the second time, I tamed my eagerness to follow bowing manner and just waited a bit for the action of the other person. Sometimes it is better to be idle for a moment, and avoid such an odd situation.

2) Business card ritual

Yes, business cards are essential for Koreans. The act of exchanging is crucial, too. You must hand it over or receive it with both hands, read out loud the name and position, check it for 2-3 seconds, and smile. Do not store it immediately. This rule is quite straight forward. Even more surprising thing for me was the number of business cards you actually need. I ended up exchanging more than a hundred cards in a span of a few days. If you have a meeting with 15 people from the same company, you will exchange around 15 business cards one by one. And of course, you don't want to say to CEO: “I don’t have enough business cards, sorry!” So, remember: prepare as many business cards as you think the maximum would be. And multiply it by three.

3) Business socializing

It is not unusual when your Korean business partner takes you out for dinner and drinks. The first day in Seoul, our business partner took our whole delegation (10 people) and approximately the same amount of his employees out for Korean barbecue and drinks. Three hours passed, people were in a good mood, and I assumed we were going to wrap this up very soon. Well, no. This was the end of the so-called round one, and we were going to attend two more. Our group moved to a sky-bar, and I finally realized that if we wanted to start a good business relationship, socializing the whole night is unavoidable. Never mind you have three big meetings in three days, all of them starting in the morning. To refuse such all-night-long drinking activities could be a mistake.

This is just a shortlist of my biggest surprises from our Korean business trip. I am aware of the fact that this is not an extensive survival kit for Korean business environment; nevertheless, I believe it will help you to avoid some cultural blows.

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