Into the Unspoken Core of Korean Business Culture

There are different ways of doing different things in various cultures. In business, major deals can be lost due to cultural misunderstandings. This can be avoided if you know the right etiquette to avoid embarrassment and save you precious time and money.

But, as a global executive, are ready to deal with a potential business partner, client, or colleague if it entails understanding unspoken words?

Read on to learn more about the nuances of Korean business culture.

Koreans, like any other Asians, always put high value on subtlety, saving face, and nonverbal cues. Of course, as its own society, Koreans have a distinct way of expressing all these, even without the need for words. As an outsider, you must get into this unspoken core through 3 important terms: gibun, nunchi and inhwa.

The Essence of Gibun

Gibun (or Kibun) in Korean culture generally means moods, feelings and emotional temperament. It's the subtle, unspoken state --- expressed in one's every action and bearing. Koreans don't necessarily explain this, but it’s their tacit way of communicating, and a huge factor in their interpersonal relationships.

Economist Richard Saccone notes gibun as an "intergral part of Korean psyche…the essence of Korean spirit."

Gibun is difficult to translate, as it has a variety of contextual meanings. But often, gibun is basically the energy that makes one person interact with another. It can either be a positive or negative mood, one’s general well-being, or an attitude in seeing things. It can also be pride, dignity, and "face".

In simple terms, no one would want to be humiliated or embarrassed in front of other people. Only for Koreans, gibun is a subtler and a deeper concept, which makes it quite unnoticeable on the surface, unless you pay closer attention.

Gibun speaks of this Korean sense of harmony with people.

In Filipino terms, the process of sensing gibun is quite similar to pakikisama (camaraderie), pakiramdaman (sensing through feelings) and pakikipagkapwa (shared being), all wrapped in one box.

You can hurt someone's gibun if people don't give proper respect to someone. In the West, telling bluntly something to someone in their face is a kind of norm, but doing so among Koreans, without taking into consideration how the person would feel, is actually hurting their gibun, and tantamount to spoiling any forms of relationship.

Sensing Gibun

So if you're doing business or finding a job in the Korean context, you must remember this most important step in relating with Koreans: be more sensitive to their gibun.

In most cases, gibun can be sensed through many little and subtle ways.

For example, according to Korean negotiation author Dieter Schneidewind, the greeting anneonghaseo actually means "Are you in peace?", and it implies this sensitivity of Koreans to the gibun of each other. At most, people pay attention to the gibun of each other by saying words that would bring positive mood.

When a senior or older person or executive commits a mistake or is feeling bad, you don't tell them they do; rather, you consider your words (or much better, be quiet about it) on how they would affect their gibun. You don't put people on spotlight; thus, you’ve taken the effort of saving their face from what could cause them a potential embarrassment.

To keep other’s gibun positively, always observe the common set of business etiquette.

Like with how Japanese do it, giving your business card follows the same practice of bowing, taking care of the card, holding it with your two hands (see More than Bowing). Only they are not as methodical as Japanese people do (and they won't mind too much on strict methods). Still, you need to convey the same care and respect, while considering the other's gibun, of which they would always mind best.

Reading Nunchi

If gibun is the overall energy you must detect, the signs can be read through nunchi. Nunchi is reading the other’s body language. It literally means “eye-measure”.

Since Koreans avoid direct confrontation and shy away from asking direct questions, they closely observe the other’s gibun by doing nunchi, gauging the other’s feeling, bearing, reaction, and behaviors that are mostly nonverbal. It’s directly similar to pakiramdaman – feeling the other’s state tacitly and communicating with the same measure.

So nunchi is a kind of interpersonal skill that any outsider of Korean culture must hone. One author notes that it’s a sort of telepathy, of reading the other’s mind, of intuitively communicating and sensing other’s gibun, mirroring it, and responding to the other, all without the need for words. For most of us used to the Westerner’s way, this can be extremely awkward. But doing business in Korea, nunchi can be your most powerful tool.

Highly Confucian Values

Remember that the Korean society was historically influenced by ancient China and its cultural worldview, specifically Confucianism. Confucianism is a mostly a philosophical system than a religion (though many traditional East Asians worship Confucius, its founder).

Confucian values place high emphasis on the importance of obligating towards other people, deep respect for family members, especially parents and elders; the same respect for authorities. There is a conspicuously strong regard for hierarchy, which are obviously patriarchal (male-centered and male-dominated).

While modern Korean women are catching up in leadership in various fields, this patriarchal emphasis is still widely influential in decision-making, leadership, morality and socio-cultural norms. Because of these Confucian values, Koreans highly regard loyalty, honor, and filial piety as foundation of enduring relationships.

Observing Inhwa

To gather all these elements is to weave them all in harmony, of which Koreans approach through the concept of inhwa, or group harmony. This concept sort of sums up sensing gibun, mastering nunchi skills and observing Confucian-influenced context by which Koreans relate to each other and do business.

Hwa, its root word, means “peace”, and that maintaining peace and good, positive vibe among people is upholding inhwa at its most beneficial state.

So the way to inhwa is not offending the other’s gibun. To do so, you must observe the other through nunchi, while taking note the Confucian dynamics that govern a situation – whether it’s a meeting or a job interview.

While not exactly similar, the concepts of hiya and delicadeza for us Filipinos seem to relate to this Korean concept, as we don’t want to speak loudly, act harshly, or behave rudely because we don’t want to disturb someone’s peace and composure.

Valuing Relationship

Gibun, nunchi and inhwa are all concepts that lead to what Koreans value most: interpersonal relationship.

This is more than just doing business. It’s the intimacy and respect that revolve between parties, and among people. Trust and loyalty are easier to establish because these three are in place.

The Western way can be too aggressive and outright, which would not exactly work if you do business with Koreans. Koreans are warmer to the outsider when there is a respectful rapport and sensitivity the other brings into the communication and interaction. Bear this in mind and you’ll not just get the benefits of doing business with Koreans, but also the harmony of being part of their business community.

The ties that bind the Philippines and China go as far as the 10th century when the two countries started trading goods between each other. What cultural practices and etiquette enabled the Filipino-Chinese businesses to thrive? Follow our blog to learn what makes the Filipino-Chinese businesses tick.

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