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

Talking business with Koreans

If you expect Koreans to buy your products, sell you their products at cheaper prices, or fear your presence by continually insisting on the fact that you graduated from an elite school and that you worked hard to become one of the leading employees at your company, you may be disappointed.

Korean businessmen expect foreigners to send them all the information regarding their company and past achievements beforehand, and such topics will not come up during conversations or business negotiations.

In fact, the third party which introduced the two businessmen may remind your Korean counterpart that you graduated from an elite school or of any significant personal or career achievement that you had, just so that the third party remind the Korean businessman that he has introduced him to a person that he can trust.

Third parties are very important to start a negotiation. Koreans refuse to negotiate with anyone who has not been introduced by a third party. It is a question of trust.

The purpose of meetings is then to clarify the relationship between the foreigner and the Korean. Koreans will want to know how much they can trust their foreign counterparts.

Trust includes how the foreigner behaves, as Koreans will trust modest people who respect them and will not trust anyone who acts arrogantly. They want to deal with people who can converse lightly and who are not afraid to expose aspects of their private life. "Ducking" a question regarding one's private life is often interpreted by Koreans as a sign that one has something bad to hide, as their level of trust will diminish.

Questions regarding private life include those on children, marital status, city of origin, country parents are from, religion, how you met your wife, where you live, what your college major was, and perhaps what your parent's occupation was, whether you completed your military service, what rank you achieved in the military service and your dating history, what your name means, your name's origin etc. However, Koreans usually do not want to know how well you performed in college, how prestigious your college or anything that may put them in an inferior position.

Note that Koreans often consider that your parents' citizenship is more important than your actual citizenship, and if your parents are from different countries, your father's country is more important, though they will not use this information against you. Your religion will not be a sign of superiority or inferiority as all religions are regarded equally in Korea, and religion is not synonymous with citizenship in Korea. Also note that being an atheist is an acceptable form of religion that Koreans respect. Therefore, if one is raised in a religion but does not practice, one may answer he is atheist, or otherwise, Koreans may ask what church you attend and who the pastor is.

Hobbies constitute an important part of the conversation as Korean businessmen will want to know what you like to do in your free time so that they can practice such activities with you. However, Koreans do not ask how one actually performs at a hobby or sport, and performing poorly is completely acceptable as long as one enjoys the activity.

Koreans want to know as much about their foreign counterpart as they possibly can so that both can be placed on an equal level of friendship rather than hostility during negotiations. Note that Koreans prefer short answers to long answers, as they want to get the essential information out of the conversation, which longer answers often include opinions, judgments or comments which may place Korean businessmen in an inferior position or offend them.

Finally, Korean businessmen will try everything to avoid getting offended during negotiations, including saying what the foreign businessman wants to hear. Foreign businessmen often leave the negotiation satisfied, but then, to their surprise, find out that their Korean counterpart wants to cancel the deal so that it can be renegotiated.

By "saying what the foreigner wants to hear" (which also applies to Korean businessmen), I mean that Koreans will make lots of promises, including those of putting clauses in the contract which are very favorable to the foreign negotiator. By having a second negotiation, foreign negotiators will often understand that the company does not support such promises and that a more realistic deal needs to be reached.