Sep 13, 2019

Korean etiquette: This is what you should know when doing business


You try to operate a new dishwasher. It has no button labels and no manual. This is how it is to try to develop international partnerships with South Korea without a cultural guidebook. While a broken dishwasher can be fixed quickly, a wrong turn in personal relationships can take years to repair. In other words: When doing business in Korea, etiquette matters.

If you’re reading this post, you’ve probably already covered the basic greetings and South Korean business etiquette, and maybe even downloaded our free pdf with key information about the country (if not, it’s not too late!). 

With the above introductory posts you’ve been off to a good start, and we hope your business relationships have been progressing smoothly. 

But, with time, things can progressively start becoming more intricate, and requiring more attention. The plus side of growing levels of business complexity are increased chances of long-lasting relationships 

Don’t be surprised

Korean business etiquette involves a lot of out-of-office meetings, which will often revolve around the dinner table. 

So, let’s get you ready to sail smoothly through all your business dinner dates. 

If after this cruise you still feel a little lost, don’t worry. Our cultural coaches at EHLION have years of experience in guiding clients to success in South Korea—cultural differences are not an obstacle! 


Korean gift giving etiquette 

Gift-giving in South Korea is a common practice, and gifts are typically exchanged at the first in-person meeting, for example, at a business dinner. 

If you’ve worked with your partners digitally before, and are visiting each other for the first time, they will likely present you with a gift. It will then feel awkward to come empty-handed, so plan gift shopping in advance.

Here are three simple tips regarding Korean business gifts: 

  • Avoid wrapping your gifts in dark or red paper. Color red is associated with unpleasantness, and that’s not a feeling you want to evoke in your business partner! 

  • Wait until your host has presented their gift and, just like with business cards, use both hands to accept it. 

  • The gifts exchanged should be of similar value, with the most expensive gift given to the person of the highest rank. It might require insider knowledge about typical gift-value expectations. 

South Korean business dress code 

In South Korea dress code is modest for both genders. Men typically wear a black suit with a white shirt matched with a non-colorful tie. Women typically wear a knee-length skirt, white blouse, and jacket.  

If your personal dressing style is a little more extravagant, you might opt to tone it down for a meeting with South Korean business partners. This is to avoid standing out, and to signal modesty.

Korean restaurant etiquette 

With a gift in hand and in well-chosen clothing, you’re ready to head to the restaurant for a dinner meeting. 

Wait, not so fast! The last thing to cover before jumping into the Korean business dinner etiquette is a quick point about punctuality.  

It’s an essential element of business. In Korean culture people are very strict about punctuality. Whether it’s a meeting at an office, a restaurant or a bar, make sure to arrive on time. It’s a sign of respect and commitment to the relationship. 

Korean table etiquette 

Now, that you’ve arrived punctually it’s time to get seated. Butwait! Korean seating order is based on hierarchy, therefore always wait to be seated. 

Even after you’ve been assigned a place, and are presented with delicious, traditional Korean dishes, it’s not yettime to dig-in! It’s common courtesy to let those older than you begin eating first before you get started.  

While you’re at the table, remember: 

  • Do not blow your nose at the table. It’s considered extremely rude. If you need to do so, better head to the lavatory. Toilets in South Korea can be easily found at every subway station, in malls, and also in restaurants. 

  • Do not lift the bowl of soup or rice from the table during the meal. In Korea bowls are left on the table while eating. 

  • Do. Leave eating utensils on the table when you are done with the meal. 


Korean dishes 

Small talk at the table should be fairly simple. In line with what we learned before about referring to topics South Koreans are proud of, you can spend hours just talking about popular Korean dishes. Asking your business partners “what is the national dish of South Korea?” is a simple but effective conversation starter!

To chat confidently with your local business partners, make sure you know the basics about South Korea. [Download this free cheat sheet]. 

After this short introduction let’s have a quick overview of traditional Korean dishes you’re likely to find on the menu. 

  • Bibimbap—rice mixed with vegetables and meat. 

  • Bulgogi—marinated beef. 

  • Doenjang jjigae—soup made of soybean paste. 

  • Kimchi jjigae—kimchi stew. Kimchi on its own is regarded by many as a national dish of Korea.  

  • Japchae—stir-fried starchy noodles. 

  • Samgyeopsal—grilled pork belly. 

  • Samgyetang—ginseng chicken soup. 

  • Gamjatang—pork backbone stew. 

  • Seulleongtang—ox bone soup. 

Just reading the list above makes your mouth water, and there are many more delicacies to find on a typical menu, including a plethora of Korean side dishes, and noodle specials. 

Smoking & Korean drinking etiquette 

As is the case in many Western countries, smoking in South Korea is prohibited in most public places. However, there are often designated areas for smoking in restaurants and bars. 

Our cultural coaching clients are often asking about the Korean drinking etiquette, and especially whether they would be required to drink a lot. If you are a light drinker, the main thing to remember is to always keep your glass half-full. If it’s empty someone will feel obligated to refill it. 


Other three important tips to bear in mind: 

  • Do not ask about alcohol, unless it’s served already. 

  • Do not refuse when someone offers to fill your glass. When someone senior pours a drink for you, hold out your cup with both hands to accept it. 

  • Do. Always pour drinks for others first, especially for those senior to you.  


How to pay bills in Korea? 

As we’re nearing the end of your business dinner, let’s talk about the bills. It’s customary that the person who invited the other party pays for the meal, and there is no need for tipping in South Korea.


What now? 

Your business dinner is over, but we hope that, with our advice, it’s just the beginning of a long series of successful meetings. With cultural fluency in South Korean business etiquette you’ll secure business deals quicker than it takes to say bibimbap! 

Give yourself an even bigger edge over your competitors—reach out to our cultural coaches. They’ve already helped many business professionals like you make headway in their South Korean operations. In the need of Korean translations? We can help you with that too! 

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