Once again, I have the privilege of sharing feedback from Rich DeBourke, principal consultant at SBF Consulting, about a lesson in the Korean Business Etiquette Guide (back when it was the Business Culture Fundamentals Specialization of the KBC Professional Certification Program). Rich's comments and questions about the materials give me an opportunity to share a richer perspective and deeper insights about the subject matter.
The following are some of his responses to various points in Module 1 of the program; I've also included my own clarifications and answers, where appropriate.
1. "Even though Koreans will often let this rule slide when working with foreigners, addressing someone with "Mr." in a business setting generally indicates that his rank is very low." – (from the "Main Points" portion of the Korean Business Etiquette Guide.)
Rich: Regarding the use of Mr., I was always told it was okay to start with calling someone Mr. Kim, and then letting them tell me to call them by their Korean name (e.g. Jin Ho) or use initials (e.g. J.H.) or to use an English name. (I’ve met Koreans that use an English name, although they won’t always have it on their business card (and their co-workers don’t know the English name, so it can be confusing).
2. "At least 70% of the Korean population has one of the top seven surnames (which are, in order from most common: Lee, Kim, Park, Jeong, Yoon, Choi, Yoo)" - (from the "Main Points" portion of the Korean Business Etiquette Guide.)
Rich: What do you recommend for the pronunciation for Choi? (Korean version or English).
Steven: This is a tricky one but the correct pronunciation is something close to "Chway", since this is how it's pronounced in Korean. The common English spelling is just weird and it may not communicate well if pronounced as it looks: "Choy"
3. "Your Korean counterpart's business card will almost certainly have an English side." - (from the "Main Points" portion of the Korean Business Etiquette Guide.)
Rich: People at the big companies have English sides, but maybe 5% of people from small and medium companies have Korean only cards – need to cover what to do (being handed the Korean side, I tend to flip the card to see the English side. If it’s not there, I can go back to the Korean side and pronounce out the person's name in Hangul.) Another option is to look at the email address for the name.
Steven: That's a good point about small companies. While non-Koreans will usually meet Koreans having double-sided business cards, some Koreans do not carry cards with English names spelled out. It should be possible to ask them or someone else around who speaks English how to address them.
4. "In social relationship (as opposed to business relationships), Koreans often "lose" their names when they have kids. They are then addressed in relation to their children. (e.g. Min-Ju's mom, or Kyeong-Jin's dad)." - (from the "Main Points" portion of the Korean Business Etiquette Guide.)
Rich: I thought the Min-Ju’s mom title was only used when people have a relationship through the kids?
Steven: Yes, good catch. The titles used do reflect the basis of the relationship. So, it would generally be necessary to have a relationship with someone through their kids in order to use the So-and-so's Mom/Dad title.
5. "Probably one of the hardest areas for foreigners to grasp when learning Korean is the ways in which the language requires the speaker and listener to understand and express how players fit into the social hierarchy. This is far more complex in Korean than the “tu/usted” concept of Spanish; Korean speakers must be aware of and reflect the relative positions of the speaker, listener and third persons being spoken about at all times." – (from the executive report "Succeed in Korea by Understanding Company Hierarchy", an online resource of the Korean Business Etiquette Guide.)
Rich: It would probably be a good idea to explain the tu/usted distinction for readers not familiar with Spanish.
Steven: In Spanish (as in French, Italian and the other Romance languages) there are two forms of "you". "Usted" is used formally and with people one doesn't have a close relationship with; "tu" is for informal situations with children, close friends, etc.. My point is that Korean has this distinction, too, but then goes way beyond it in in terms of further complexity to reflect the relationships between speaker, listeners and third parties. This is what I mean about hierarchy being built into the Korean language and about how this is reflected in Korean company hierarchy.
6. "Typical large Korean companies stick strictly to a traditional model of promotion… These tendencies are less pronounced today than in the past and not every Korean organization puts as much emphasis on age and structure." – (from the executive report "Succeed in Korea by Understanding Company Hierarchy", an online resource of the Korean Business Etiquette Guide.)
Rich: Traditional companies and managers use the hierarchical way. But are you saying that others use a blend of Korean and Western? I’m not sure any Korean company is completely westernized.
Steven: The leading Korean companies all follow the traditional model strictly. But I've heard about experimentation in some less well-known conglomerates and in smaller companies. For example, I'm told that Kolon is trying to do away with many job titles in their official internal communications. Some smaller Korean firms run by (mainly younger and Western-educated) managers are also adopting flatter and more merit-based systems. It'll be interesting to see if any of these companies become standard setters in Korean business in the future but for now, the traditional corporate structure remains the only defining standard in Korean business.
7. "Foreigners are, by definition, outsiders. Thus, you can expect to be treated at the highest level of respect and care by your Korean counterparts." – (from the executive report "Succeed in Korea by Understanding Company Hierarchy", an online resource of the Korean Business Etiquette Guide.)
Rich: The situation here can become complicated as many foreigners who come to Korea for business come through a local agent. The foreigner is treated with respect, but the local agent is stuck in the Korean hierarchical system. This causes confusion for many Westerners. Also, dinners are confusing when there are three groups (foreigner, agent, customer).
8. "Rank in Korea can be is based on many things, but in business it starts with job position. Age is nearly as important, mainly because job position and age generally go hand-in-hand. And educational level and relative time spent in the company are considerations, too. In addition, the relative standing of different companies can come into play when people from two companies get together." – (from the executive report "Succeed in Korea by Understanding Company Hierarchy", an online resource of the Korean Business Etiquette Guide.)
Rich: What about which university someone attended, such as Seoul National versus Backwater U? Does that impact the level? Harvard people always let you know they went to Harvard, expecting that it gets them more respect and credibility. What about someone with an MBA versus just an engineering degree? What impact does buyer/seller have on the relationship (in Japan, the seller is always lower – Dave Barry’s book, Dave Barry Does Japan has a great chapter on salesmen in Japan where he describes how the salesman starts a visit by apologizing for taking up the customer’s valuable time).
What about when Koreans have two relationships at different levels? I attended a Korean Culture seminar a while back, hosted by the Seoul Global Center and given by a Korean university professor, and she told the story of a Korean teacher whose husband owned a floral shop in a neighborhood that was near to her school. One Saturday, the parents of one of the teacher’s students wandered into the floral shop, not knowing that their child’s teacher’s husband owned the shop. When the parents saw the teacher there working in a floral shop, they became quite flustered and left the shop. The key take-away is that Koreans, once they feel they have a relationship established (teacher is a high level position), anything that goes against that relationship (working in a floral shop is a low level position) causes them to be uncomfortable.
Steven: Interesting and valid insights. The real world is seldom as straightforward as the rules would lead us to believe and these examples show how things can become complex in situations that don't fit "the rules".
In reference to the differences in levels based on backgrounds, such as what university one went to or whether one has a masters or undergraduate degree, this shouldn't affect levels of speech directly. However, though these factors will influence one's career path and thus where one falls in the hierarchy.