Republic of Korea cultural insights
The following cultural insights are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. The content in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.
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Local and Canadian perspectives for the following subjects:
- Communication styles
- Display of emotion
- Dress, punctuality & formality
- Preferred managerial qualities
- Hierarchy and decision-making
- Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
- Privileges and favouritism
- Conflicts in the workplace
- Motivating local colleagues
- Recommended books, films & foods
- In-country activities
- National heroes
- Shared historical events with Canada
- About the cultural interpreters
- Related information
Good things to talk about could be hobbies or family—and asking about their health. Koreans may also ask about your marital status and the occupation of your parents.
Koreans will ask each other about which city they are from, or what university they attended. These questions may seem casual and light, but when asked in the wrong context they might make some Koreans uncomfortable. Regional loyalties are strong in Korea, and although many schools offer a very good education, a select few universities are seen as much more exclusive—and Koreans will sometimes use these questions to judge the ’status’ of the person they are meeting.
Regarding humour, most Koreans do not appreciate / or are not familiar with sarcastic styles of humour.
Koreans often like to discuss family (e.g. number of brothers and sisters) with people they have just met. Even in professional situations, initial questions sometimes go a little deeper than westerners are generally used to (e.g. Are you married? / How old are you?). But such questions are not considered rude in Korea, and you should try not to be put off by such questioning.
You may wish to work in your experiences with Korean cuisine, particularly foods you have liked. Food is a fairly neutral topic, but can go a long way in breaking the ice.
Koreans can often be curious about life abroad. You may wish to share some of your insights about life in Canada compared to life in Korea. But remember to be positive about your host country.
Korean humour can be quite different than some brands of Canadian humour. Most Koreans don’t have an appreciation the Canadian style of irony. Initially, the best way to keep an atmosphere light and open is to try to be bright. As you spend time in Korea, you will gain an appreciation for the local sense of humour. Just because Koreans laugh doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re funny. Laughter can sometimes be an expression of discomfort.
Personal space is similar to North America. Traditionally eye contact is avoided, especially when speaking to elders. But these days, eye contact during conversation is becoming more common. Touching is accepted, especially between friends. Women will often hold hands when walking down the street.
Koreans don’t generally use gestures.
Korean’s facial expressions are usually much less than in North America.
In Seoul (the capital) and the areas surrounding it, tone of voice is generally soft and gentle or polite sounding. In some regions, especially the southeast, the tone of voice for general conversations can sound much more aggressive.
Koreans can be very direct, asking questions that could catch North Americans off guard or be considered impolite (e.g. what was the price you paid for something / income level).
In conversation, Koreans generally have a regard for space that is similar to ours. However, Korea is a very densely populated country. Elevators and busses may be much more tightly packed with people than a Canadian would be used to. You may also find walking down a particularly busy street can be a bit turbulent until you get the feel for the flow of people.
If you are dealing with middle aged people or younger, eye contact is generally not an issue. The pattern is quite similar to North American norms. However, some middle-aged people and older people especially may find it rude if you attempt too much eye contact. On occasion, some older men may stare quite intensely at a foreigner, and the experience can be off-putting for some. Ex- pats dubbed this the ’ajoshi stare’ (ajoshi is a term of address for a mature male). My speculation is that it is rooted more in curiosity rather than hostility.
As personal relationships develop, occasional touching is okay. Men tend to touch each other more than in the West. A hand on the knee between male associates, particularly during after- work socializing, should not be interpreted as some sort of advance. Rather it is akin to a pat on the back, signally a developing friendship.
Upon first meeting someone in a professional situation, Koreans will give a slight bow, followed by a handshake. The handshake is generally softer than Canadians are used to. Be careful not to crush your associate’s hand. A business card will then be offered—use two hands to offer you card, and accept your colleagues with two hands as well. Look at it briefly before you put it away.
In general, the two-hand rule is a good rule of thumb. Offering or receiving something with two hands is a sign of respect. This even applies to paying for an item in a store, although cashiers in busy department or grocery stores will often ignore this custom.
Display of emotion
Traditionally, public displays of affection have not been common. But younger Koreans are more open to walking arm in arm and sometimes kissing in public.
Public displays of anger are not generally accepted, but more common than in North America.
Public displays of affection are becoming more common in younger generations. However, away from university campuses, people are more conservative than in the West.
Displays of anger are difficult to categorize. You are more likely to see an outburst between two people who are having a disagreement (e.g. a fender bender). But in polite company, such outbursts are certainly frowned upon. As a foreigner, people will be trying to read your emotions, and you should be conscious of this. An overt sign of displeasure will have much more of an impact in a Korean workplace than in a Western one. It is important to keep office civility.
Dress, punctuality & formality
In general, workplace dress is much more formal than in Canada. Men almost always wear suits to work. Women will avoid outfits that are too casual.
Koreans speak to their superiors with respect and care. Titles, rather than personal names are used. A president of a company will be addressed with the Korean equivalent of ’Mr. President’ by a subordinate, not ’Mr. Kim’ (Kim being his family name).
At work, co-workers are addressed with a combination of title and family name - reflecting a certain level of formality. For example, Mr. or Mrs. Park could be addressed in the following way: Park son-seng-nim. "Son-seng-nim" literally means teacher. However, it can be used as a term of respect for a colleague.
If there is more familiarity, the personal name can be used with the suffix ’shi’. Ms. Lee Su-mi (family name precedes personal name) could be addressed as ’Su-mi shi’."
Status is important, and respected in workplace and society. Korean grammar is built around levels of formality to reflect this.
Deadlines, especially work-related, are supposed to be respected. Koreans are quite uncomfortable asking a superior for the extension of a deadline.
Time off is much less flexible than in Canada. Apart from sick days, and family related leave, bosses are more reluctant to give employees time off. Employees are also reluctant to ask for time off.
Being on time is very important. Many bosses expect workers to be at the office early. Workers are usually reluctant to leave their work on time. This practice is being re-examined by Korean society, but change is slow.
Dress is generally more formal than in Canada. Suits are the norm (pretty much a requirement) for men in an office environment. Women should avoid overly casual outfits. When in Korea, I found that even Korean university students dressed much more professionally than I was used to.
Terms of address for supervisors and respect for coworkers are very important in Korea. Apart from titles, there are different verb conjugations that imply varying levels of formality.
Preferred managerial qualities
Good schooling is very important in Korea. Experience is also important for leaders. Leaders should not be too ’mushy’ or wishy-washy. Hard work and long hours are key to moving ahead.
If the manager is a foreigner, workers expect a more open style of manager. Workers may also expect more flexibility and less formality than in a standard Korean workplace.
It is difficult to communicate feelings of dissatisfaction with a superior. If the boss is seen as good, workers will make a special effort to be kind.
Koreans place a high value on education. There is a select group of universities, akin to the Ivy League in the US. Those who attend these schools will be more likely to advance through the ranks of management. However, Korea is slowly becoming more performance-based, and this is bringing changes to the system of how managers are selected.
In the past, people have tended to advance through the ranks based on seniority. However, this too is starting to change, as merit is beginning to play more of a role.
A manager who is open to new ideas is highly regarded by those he supervises. Until recently, Korean management structures have been rather rigid, with ideas coming from the top, with little questioning from those who must implement.
Koreans value hard work, and they will be reluctant to leave the office as long as their supervisor is working too.
If you are a supervisor, your staff will normally be polite. You can tell how you are perceived by how approachable you are perceived to be. The best way to manage staff is to blend good leadership skills with openness to ideas.
Hierarchy and decision-making
In general, workers are directed by supervisors, but there are some chances to offer advice. Management has traditionally been top-down. But in some cases, workers are slowly having chances to offer new ideas.
Supervisors do communicate with workers to offer feedback about their work performance, what is being done well, and where improvement is necessary.
Decisions and ideas have usually come down from the top, with little questioning. However, there seems to be developing more openness to feedback from line workers.
A good supervisor should cultivate a climate where workers feel comfortable approaching him or her for feedback or answers. This can be done by encouraging or soliciting input from employees, where appropriate.
Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
Men will usually have better chances for promotion and are paid higher salaries than women. Men often get better treatment from superiors.
Religion is not a factor in the workplace.
Koreans’ ideas of a person are often shaped by that person’s occupation and education, more so than in Canada. People who have been to the ’right’ schools and universities often get more respect and better treatment. If you are from a different region, people will sometimes be prejudiced against you. Employers will favour graduates from their university and those from their home region.
Unlike Canada, Korea is not a multicultural society. Aside from some resident Chinese, and guest workers, the population is almost entirely ethnic Korean. Koreans can often be very kind to foreigners. They can also be suspicious at times. The strongest emotion is curiosity.
The most important thing to remember is to treat Koreans with respect. Be careful who you trust, because some Koreans will try to take advantage of foreigners (as also happens in Canada). Korean society is homogenous and has experienced many wars driven by foreign powers, and some Koreans have a difficult time trusting foreigners.
Korea is further away from reaching gender equality than most countries in the West. Women can expect poorer treatment than their male counterparts in a variety of situations. Male children are still viewed as more desirable. Even tobacco has been forbidden to all but the most senior of women. A woman seen smoking can be subject to harassment by passing men. Though this is changing, and smoking is unfortunately becoming more popular among younger women, as a sign of assertiveness.
Though ethnically homogenous, Korea has two main religions—Buddhism and Christianity. Though surveys vary, many suggest a roughly even split between the two. Despite this, religion is not a factor in personal or professional relations. For this reason, Koreans will sometimes see religion as just another topic of interest for making small talk. You may find yourself being asked ’Are you Christian?’ shortly after meeting someone in an informal situation. On religion, visitors to Korea are often struck to see what they interpret to be a Swastika in windows or painted on busses. However, this is really not the meaning of the symbol. It is actually a Buddhist sign, and signifies a temple or Buddhist community organization.
Koreans can be very class conscious, and this is mainly defined by occupation. Doctors, lawyers and diplomats are very highly regarded. Despite their country’s ethnic homogeneity, Koreans’ views of their colleagues can also be shaped by regional loyalties. Presidents have tended to favour their home region, once attaining power.
As mentioned before, Korea is pretty much ethnically homogenous. Like many European countries, nationality in Korea is determined by blood ties. Furthermore, there is no equivalent to a ’permanent resident’ status. So foreign workers are required to renew their work visas annually, and are not free to look for work elsewhere. Some Korean employers are tempted to take advantage of foreign workers caught in this situation.
Building personal relationships is a very important part of doing business in Korea. This is part of Korean culture. Colleagues will often go out for drinks in order to build these relationships. Koreans will take turns, and take pleasure in, paying for each other. A bill is never divided.
Relationships are very important for business in Korea. Aside from office meetings, business relationships will often carry over into social situations. This can be in the form of golf, an outing to a ’singing room’, or going out for a meal with drinks. These personal relations establish trust, and hopefully build a better working relationship between business partners or work colleagues.
Privileges and favouritism
Personal connections are important (especially school, childhood friendships, and regional connections). These could be seen as reasons to expect special treatment from a boss. But this would not often be in an obvious form.
Employers will often give cash bonuses to their workers at Chu Sok (Korean Thanksgiving) and New Year’s, as well as occasionally throughout the year. This helps morale.
Some might expect preferred treatment due to a personal relationship. However, that has not been my general experience. Going out with colleagues just seems to be part of doing business.
Koreans do, however, have an inner circle of friends, based on friendships formed in early childhood or university. These relationships are the strongest of all (outside of family) and favours and special considerations may be exchanged among these groups, though I am not sure to what extent.
Conflicts in the workplace
Whether you approach somebody directly or not regarding a work-related problem is a matter of personal style, rather than culture. If done, it should be handled privately.
If you have offended a colleague or are having problems, you probably won’t be told directly. But you may notice that the person in question treats you differently from how he or she treats other co-workers. For example, you may not be offered snacks brought for the office team.
If you have a work-related problem with a colleague, I would suggest the same tact and respect that you would expect to be extended to you (i.e. handle it privately, with diplomacy). If a colleague is having problems, you can expect civility and politeness to continue. But you may find that they are not as ’friendly’ (e.g. not sharing jokes or even invitations that are extended to the rest of the office).
Motivating local colleagues
The Korean system of education and examinations drives students to work and study extremely long hours. However, adults are driven by many of the same things that motivate North American workers—job satisfaction, an effective manager, good working conditions and even bonuses (when appropriate).
Koreans are usually very loyal to employers that are loyal to them and treat them with respect. They get satisfaction from a job well done. Like nearly all workers, money is a factor—fair compensation for the work done.
Recommended books, films & foods
The Korean Embassy in Ottawa has a cultural centre with books and videos from Korea. The attendants are very helpful to anybody interested in learning about Korea.
There is a great book Ugly Americans / Ugly Koreans (possibly vice versa), which looks into some of the cultural misunderstandings that emerge when East meets West. You may wish to visit some of the Web sites of Korean language dailies, as they offer English coverage of some of their articles. These include: http://english.chosun.com/, http://english.donga.com/
In Korea, you should visit the traditional outdoor markets—the biggest in Seoul are Tong Dae Moon and Nam Dae Moon markets. The artistic district—In Sa Dong—offers visitors an interesting look at new and traditional Korean arts and crafts.
Seoul has a variety of cultural centres and theatres. When in Seoul, you should tell a local co- worker that you would like to see some traditional music and theatre.
The Korea Herald is an English language daily newspaper.
Arirang TV offers English programming on Korean news and translation of popular dramas and older movies.
Interesting sporting events include traditional Korean wrestling (shirum), baseball, soccer, and basketball.
Co-workers will often offer to share some of their country’s sights and events with you.
If you have a chance, you should visit Kyong-ju, which is the capital city of one of the old Korean kingdoms. Many museums and historic temples are found there. In and around Seoul, there should be many chances to catch attractions such as traditional music concerts and displays of art. Cafes can be easily found throughout Korea. They are often decorated beautifully. Prices can range significantly. They are great to sit and read or have a discussion in. Coffee servings are generally smaller than a Canadian may be used to. For quantity over quality (i.e. to satisfy a caffeine craving) it is probably best to seek out the nearest McDonald’s.
For meat eaters, good foods to try are bulgoki (grilled beef) and sam gye tang (chicken and ginseng soup).
Vegetarians might enjoy bibimbap (steamed rice topped with selected Korean vegetables, a spicy chilli sauce and topped with an egg). Be careful to mention that you don’t want meat, as ground beef is sometimes added.
All visitors should try kimchee. There are many varieties of this side dish. But the classic is bechoo kimchi fermented cabbage with chilli paste and mixed spices (vegetarians note that fish essence is sometimes added). Vegetarians may be safer with mool kimchee—a less spicy kimchee that is much less likely to have any fish flavour added.
For other ideas, you can always ask a co-worker. They should be able to recommend a favourite restaurant for any dish.
Korea has many famous classical musicians. There are many Koreans who study at Juliard. Joh Su-mi (singer), Jong Myong-hoon (conductor) and Jong Kyong-hwa (violinist) are examples of some of Korea’s great classical musicians.
In sports, Park Chan-ho is a celebrated baseball player, and Park Se-rhee is well known in the golfing world.
Historical greats include: the King Sejong the Great, who invented Han-Gul the phonetic Korean script that allowed literacy to flourish; and Admiral Yi Sun-sin who fought the Japanese navy in ’turtle ships’ the world’s first ironclad vessels.
Park Chun Hee—the authoritarian general that marshalled Korea’s heavy industry and oversaw much of the country’s early economic and social development is still looked on favourably by many. He demanded a lot from the citizens, and had little patience for democracy or demonstrations. But he is seen as a leader who put the country’s interests first, even ahead of his own. His wife, who was assassinated by North Korean agents while he was giving a speech, is remembered fondly.
King Sae Jong—was the Korean ruler that introduced the Hangul writing system. This methodical phonetic script allowed literacy to spread beyond the elites, who until then had used Chinese-style characters to write Korean.
Shared historical events with Canada
Canada joined the UN forces in the Korean War.
Many Korean students come to Canada to study English.
In the past 5-10 years, many Koreans have come to Canada to live and work. Many continue to come.
Canada is remembered for its role in the Korean War. A visit to the UN Cemetery in Pusan (Korea’s second largest city) is a moving experience.
Generally, Canada is looked upon with interest, and viewed favourably.
Koreans generally have good views on Canada and Canadians.
Canadians living abroad, like any other group, will tend to remember the best of their country, and compare it to the facets of life in the new country that they find most difficult to deal with. It is important to try to keep an open mind. On occasion, I would find myself with complaints about life in Korea. But with a bit of distance, these have faded away, and I find it difficult to recall the sources of my frustration. However I do recall a couple of things that would come up in conversation.
Gender issues are understandably a difficult subject. The different dynamics between the sexes is a source of frustration for many—Koreans and foreigners alike.
Korean food tends to be served very hot. Soup is often brought to the table still boiling in the pot in which it was cooked. Koreans typically ’slurp’ while they are eating in order to cool the food. This can give the impression that Koreans lack manners. However, their system of table manners and etiquette is highly developed.
About the cultural interpreters
Your cultural interpreter was born in Pusan, South Korea, the eldest of four children. She was raised in this city in the south east of South Korea until the age of 18, when she moved to Seoul to continue her studies. She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Korean Language Education from Ehwa Women's University. Afterwards, your cultural interpreter immigrated to Canada, to live in Ottawa. She is currently living in Gatineau, Quebec. She is married and has no children.
Your cultural interpreter was born in Montreal, Quebec. He was raised in the city of North Bay, Ontario. He studied International Studies in Toronto at Glendon College of York University. His work sent him to Korea for the first time in 1996 where he taught English until 1998. Afterwards, your cultural interpreter went to Ottawa, where he studied International Affairs (Development Studies). He is currently living in Canada. He works in the public sector in Hull, Quebec and has no children.
Intercultural Issues are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. For each country, two perspectives are provided: one by a Canadian and the other by a person born in the selected country. By comparing the "local point of view" with the "Canadian point of view", you will begin to form a picture of that country's culture. We encourage you to continue your research using a variety of other sources and to use Triangulation as an evaluation process. Although cultural informants were asked to draw on as broad a base of experience as possible in formulating their answers, these should be understood as one perspective that reflects the particular context and life experiences of that person; they are not intended to be a comment on any particular group or society.
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The content of Country Insights in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.
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