Welcome to Linguistics and Korea

Ever wondered why Koreans speak "bad English"?
Why it's so hard to learn Korean?
Why it's so hard to have "normal" conversations with Koreans?
Why it's so hard to fit in with Korean culture and society?
We don't claim to have the perfect answer to these questions, just a few hints that we hope will clarify the situation.
If you have questions, comments or suggestions, we'd be happy to hear from you. Email us at raphael.hadid [at] gmail [dot] com

Doing business with Koreans - when Koreans sell to foreigners

Korea is an industrialized economy and is export based, and Koreans have years of experience selling local products to foreigners.

Korean products can be found in most countries and Koreans have developed sophisticated ways to sell products effectively.

When foreigners come to Korea to buy Korean products, Korean businessmen will make sure that they have fun during their stay in Korea. Korean businessmen will hire young beautiful single Korean women and young handsome Western men to take care of the foreigner. They will make sure that they are in permanent contact and that the foreigner may turn to those Korean women and Western men whenever any information is needed or when they need company.

Korean businessmen will send those young Korean women and Western men with the foreigner on tours to visit the country. Visits will include hiking in the summer and skiing in the winter, visiting temples, and eating a mixture of Western food, Asian food and the kind of Korean food foreigners tend to enjoy (bulgogi or mul nengmyeon). Korean businessmen will assure the foreigner that the food and recreation is the only available to the upper class and will sometimes even provide information on how much the tour cost, which is not considered rude in Korean culture. In some cases, some Korean businessmen will give foreign businessmen money to go gambling or even to go see prostitutes.

All this is part of what anthropologists call the "gift theory": when someone receives a gift, he will feel like he has to return it in some way, either by buying great quantities of Korean products at relatively expensive prices or in any other way he can pay him back.

During negotiations, Koreans make sure that the foreigner feels comfortable communicating. Even when the Korean businessman does speak English or any other foreign language, he will provide an interpreter, usually a young beautiful Korean woman who actually speaks less English than he does. The interpreter plays the role of moderating the negotiation: businessmen tend to be softer when beautiful women are around and tend not to offend men in front of women.

During the first meeting, business is never discussed. The Korean businessman tries to establish a relationship with the foreign businessman, usually at an expensive restaurant where heavy drinking is involved. They will discuss family, educational background and hobbies, but never things related to success, money, company, politics, the economy or any other serious topic.

Negotiations are then held in the second meeting, usually with a team including a group of managers and interpreters. Korean businessmen will tend to offer ridiculously high prices for their products, and with the presence of female interpreters and other businessmen foreign businessmen will tend to refrain from being aggressive. Foreign businessmen will softly convince their Korean counterpart to lower the price. There is a myth that Korean businessmen never say "no", but they do when their foreign counterpart offers a low price.

If the Korean businessman is dissatisfied with the deal, he will tend to give a very soft handshake or bow, barely looking at his foreign counterpart. He will then inform his foreign counterpart through a third party, usually a woman, that due to an unnamed reason, the deal has been canceled. That will force the foreign businessman to come back offering a higher price, which will usually seal the deal.