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August 2013

“One of our investment professionals will be traveling to South Korea for a meeting and would like to make a few general opening remarks in Korean."

*** Visit the related discussion on Korea Business Central.

I received the following two questions last week, and as these aren't the first inquiries I've gotten on the subject, I figure'd I'd post some thoughts on the topic here.

The Questions

#1 - “One of our investment professionals will be traveling to South Korea for a meeting and would like to make a few general opening remarks in Korean; thus, he is looking for someone to assist with crafting the remarks and learning to say them properly. Can you… assist?”

#2 - “[An executive of our company] is going to be giving a presentation in Korea next month at a conference…. He is a keynote for the general session with [a lot of] people. I’d like to open up his presentation with a cultural greeting and 'thank you' to the organization that is hosting him for this event.

Can you help me understand the cultural awareness around such a greeting? Is it appropriate at the beginning or should it go at the end? Can you help with a quick thank you greeting in Korean that I could include in the presentation?”

My Answer

These questions are based on the following assumptions:

  1. Speaking in Korean to a Korean audience will contribute to the experience.
  2. A greeting to Koreans in English may require input from a cultural expert in order to say the right things.

But it’s really not necessary to over-think this thing. For starters, here’s how I answered question #1:

"You don't generally have to worry much about giving a culturally correct speech in Korea if the same speech would be culturally correct back home. Once you've written what you want to say, I'd be glad to review and make sure that you won't offend anyone with it, but as long as you stay away from political commentary, you're probably OK.

"As for giving the speech in Korean, unless your associate has had some training in the Korean language, I wouldn't recommend it. Just parroting back a bunch of sounds that he's practiced a few times isn't going to sound much like proper Korean and the audience is unlikely to understand it.

"If you feel it's important that your associate's comments be shared in Korean, then prepare a version in Korean and give it to someone (perhaps an interpreter) beforehand to have him/her read it aloud in Korean after your associate shares his message in English. If your audience speaks English well enough to understand without an interpreter, then the need for your associate to speak in Korean is doubly unnecessary."

A very basic greeting like “Anyeong haseyo (Hello)” at the beginning or “Gamsahamnida (Thank you)” at the end is appropriate. The Korean audience will appreciate the effort and this will certainly generate a few smiles in the audience.

However, trying to put together full sentences and paragraphs just based on memorized sounds is not going to result in a speech that anyone will understand. If, as in the case of Question #2, the purpose of the greeting is to express thanks, it’s important that the audience understand what’s being said and for that, an English greeting which is then repeated through a Korean interpreter is the best option. I was in the room once when a Westerner tried to express a long idea in Korean (without learning Korean first) and the audience didn’t understand what he said and this resulted in quite a bit of social discomfort.

As for the second premise, there’s certainly no harm in running the remarks by a consultant after they’re written in order to be absolutely certain nothing inappropriate gets in, but the same rules apply in Korea as elsewhere: avoid crude humor and stay away from political opinions. Korea is not a black box of hidden cultural codes and there is not a uniquely Korean way to give a speech that is distinct from any other way. 

You might, however, review a couple recent business tips I wrote recently, including:

The KBC Professional Certification Program also contains a wealth of information about communicating and interacting effectively with Koreans in business.

And as mentioned above, I would be glad to review the content of your speech and provide feedback and suggestions on improving it for a Korean audience.

*** Visit the related discussion on Korea Business Central.

Korean Translation Tip: Koreans See Punctuation in Acronyms from a Different Perspective

I talked about acronyms awhile ago in connection with plurals and explained that the “s” should be removed from the end of an English acronym when translated to Korean.

The reason for this is that plurals in Korean aren’t quite the same as they are for us in English.

It’s a difference of perspective... and today, I’m going to tell you that punctuation is a bit tricky when working with acronyms, too.

A few years back, there was a popular Korean music group called “High-Five of Teenager” (whatever that’s supposed to mean!). But the group never used their full name (with a name that stupid, who would?); instead, they went by the acronym of the name.

Only problem... They punctuated it this way:


Do you see that there’s no period after the T? That’s because when Koreans use English acronyms, they see the periods, not as indicators of an abbreviation, but as cool-looking spacers between letters.

(In fact, in the very popular Korean text messaging service KaKaoTalk, if you add an extra space between characters, the program automatically adds periods as spacers!)

What does it matter? Well, occasionally you’ll see translations into Korean where the periods are left off the ends of acronyms, such as “U.S.A” or something.

Strictly speaking, it’s probably wrong, but as with other funny little quirks in Korean (remember the colon?), it’s hardly a big deal that absolutely must be corrected when translating into Korean.

Actually, the simplest solution is just to remove the periods altogether: USA (though, with H.O.T, the punctuation was as much a part of the “official name” as the letters).

Korean Translation Tip - Translations of acronyms into Korean will sometimes come back with lagging period that are missing. Likewise, if your translator isn’t on his or her game that day, a Korean translation into English may have acronyms that follow the Korean convention. Either remove the periods altogether or match the style to the respective language.

OK, C.U later...