Category: Korean Business Drivers

Exploring Korean business, language and life from Ansan, Korea

Korean Translation Tip: Don’t Just Use a Dictionary to Translate Job Titles into Korean

If you’re translating English business cards into Korean, work with a professional who understands the intricacies of the task and asks enough questions to be able to translate job titles correctly.

For example, here are many (but not all) of the possibilities for translating “director” and its variants:

  • 이사
  • 전무
  • 전무이사
  • 상무이사
  • 대표이사
  • 원장
  • 회장
  • 실장
  • 소장
  • 센터장
  • 협회장
  • 부장
  • 국장
  • 청장
  • 총장
  • 사무총장
  • 사무국장
  • 감독
  • 디렉터
  • 지휘자
  • 중역
  • PD
  • 심의관 

Some of these correspond with other possible English job titles, too. For the full run-down, check out “How Do You Write ‘Director’ in Korean?

“Director” is not the only confusing job title (admittedly, it is one of the harder ones though). This is not just because Korean organizations are structured differently than Western ones; you’ll also find that even the same jobs at the same level in the organization can sometimes imply different responsibilities.

I’d like to point out too that Koreans aren’t always helpful here since they tend to inflate their English job titles. I was at a (very well-known!) company recently where, of the ten business cards I was given by my Korean counterparts, every one but the president’s card listed him or her one rank higher in English than his/her card in Korean! It takes an honest broker to work through all this sometimes.

Korean Translation Tip – Don’t consider a business card translation a throw-away job just because the job title is only one word. Get professional help (such as from someone with a masters degree from a Korean university in management strategy).

BTW, I’ve even written a guidebook for this, which can be downloaded free: The Definitive Guide to Business Cards in Korea

Guidelines for Preparing a Resume/CV and Cover Letter/Self-Introduction Letter for Getting a Job in Korea

As Korean companies expand their operations on the world stage, they are hiring a growing number of non-Koreans for positions both in Korea and overseas. The number of non-Koreans chasing such jobs continues to outpace supply though, especially at the entry level, and so applying effectively is more important than ever.

Unless you've networked your way to an unpublished position (it happens!) or have unique talents that would give you global competitiveness just about anywhere, you will have to do your homework and prepare adequately for the process in advance.

I've previously answered some questions regarding the job search effort:

We've also got the two following free Special Business Reports posted on Korea Business Central.

Focusing on seekers of entry-level or slightly higher positions, this article discusses the specifics of preparing key documents of the application based on questions I've received many times from KBC members and others.

1. What are the key differences between applying to a Korean company in Korea and a multinational company in Korea?

If you're applying to a multinational company, your documents can generally follow international standards for job applications and you won't need to adapt your pitch to Korean procedures, formats and sensibilities as much.

Generally, multinational companies are more likely to hire through recruiters, whereas Korean companies will have on-the-ground hiring departments that primarily handle this and they will follow Korean norms.

But appearances can be deceiving since some multinational companies allow their Korean operations to run fully (or nearly fully) on Korean lines. For example, even though Homeplus is owned by Tesco of the UK, the Korean office is more Korean than international (probably more Samsung than anything else, since it is run by former Samsung executives), even though a few foreign executives are dispatched from the UK. I'm told this is how Amway Korea operates, too. Therefore, those multinational companies where the Korean office is its own operation, rather than a small extension of a supra-national organization, you are likely to find yourself going through Korean processes when applying for lower-level jobs.

Keep in mind that even if you are applying to a Korean company, as a foreigner, you're still an unusual hire. Therefore, the hiring for these positions is done in a much more ad hoc way, rather than the twice-yearly hiring that many of the large Korean conglomerates schedule out in advance for their Korean applicants. Because of this, there is a lot more scope for you to take the initiative in the job search process, such as by finding jobs through networking, by reaching out to the hiring department personally, or by being creative (in a good way!) with the formats, information and procedures Korean applicants would otherwise be expected to follow.

2. What should go into my resume or CV?

Koreans resumes typically include a small photograph. This should be a head shot similar to what you'd submit with a passport application and not a family or vacation photo. It goes right up at the top of the first page, usually in the right corner. 

Unless you're closer to 50 or 60 than 25, I'd suggest you put your birthdate at the top, too. This may be a no-no for companies to ask back home, but the Koreans you are applying to would like to know (whether they come out and say it or not). Besides, if they've asked for your foreigner registration number or a copy of your passport, they'll know your birth date anyway. As with anywhere, but perhaps to a greater degree in Korea, being young works in your favor for entry-level positions.

Include your nationality and visa status, if an advantage (see below).

Other than that, include the standard stuff, such as education, work experience, and other professional skills and interests. Be specific so that your readers can know exactly when you were working or studying and look up your university and previous companies on the Internet by name.

You may not want to include work experiences that Koreans might misinterpret. For example, you're unlikely to get many brownie points as a "go-getter" if you mention your university work experience at Burger King. Back home, having a part-time job during high school or college shows a strong work ethic; in Korea, it can lead to unhelpful questions and assessments of you.

Most positions that Westerners from English-speaking countries apply for leverage English skills and your potential employer may not care that much if you speak Korean. (see also Reflections on the Benefits of Learning Korean to One's Career in Korea) Still, it's good to show your commitment to Korea by including any Korean-language courses you've graduated from, as well as other Korea-focused language or business certificates (the KBC Professional Certification Program is a great attention-getter!) You might even include experiences you've had with Koreans back home, such as volunteering with Korean student organizations there.

If you've been in Korea for very long, be sure to mention how long; the longer the better, since this shows your commitment to staying around and not leaving the position early because you got tired of Korea. If you've been off the beaten track in Korea, mention your travels briefly. If you like Korean soju or makgeolli, you might even mention this, as it's a great talking point and tells the company you'll be willing to join and participate in functions with alcohol (usually a good thing, though not as big a deal as in years past).

If there are online materials about your professional or academic experience relevant to the role, including a link to an online portfolio or to actual certifications can be helpful. It can't hurt to include a link to your LinkedIn profile, also.

When Koreans prepare their resumes, they invariably include a few lines about hobbies and other personal interests. I would recommend you do the same, but don't overdo it, such that your company thinks you'll be so focused on the weekend that you won't be willing to put in long hours during the week or that you'll be unavailable for weekend work, as it arises. (BTW, if you're not willing to work more than the standard 40 hours per week, you might reconsider whether Korea's the right place for you!)

Your resume in Korea will not be too long even if it has a bit more information than you might ordinarily put on a resume back home, but I'd still suggest you keep it at no more than two pages.

3. What should go into my cover letter and should I translate it to Korean?

Koreans call the cover letter a "self-introduction letter" and this is where you get past the raw facts to show why you're the best person for the job. This is not the time to list out how you want the work to help you; this is where you point out how your skills will benefit the company. The self-introduction letter is also not just a regurgitation of your resume but should emphasize your fit and strengths concisely.

Korean self-introduction letters sometimes go many pages, but I wouldn't recommend this at all. If you're writing the letter in English, a Korean recruiter (even one with good, but not native, English skills) can get bogged down in a lot of words.

I recommend translating your self-introduction letter to Korean; making it short will help you to keep the translation costs down, too. One thing to keep in mind when preparing your letter in Korean is to avoid creating unreasonable expectations of your Korean skills, or to think that this is a deal maker anyway (see link above about learning Korean). The purpose for presenting a letter in Korean is to help the recruiter get quickly to the information in your background that's relevant without a language barrier and to help you show an extra level of commitment to the position through having made this effort. If your Korean skills are not fantastic, it would be reasonable to include a sentence in the letter mentioning this. The HR person will understand then that you had the document translated, which can still show your sincerity, especially if you include a few words (not a lot!) about what Korea means to you personally. It never hurts to mention that you're willing and eager to learn more about Korea and Korean ways, too.

One more selling point can be your visa status. If you're in Korea on a visa that lets you work in-country without being sponsored by your employer, this both shows your commitment to Korea and takes a burden off your employer. Not only can the HR people avoid the hassle of paperwork, but the company also isn't legally responsible for your good behavior in Korea. Therefore, if you have one of these visas, mention it both in your resume and cover letter. (see also Answers to Top Questions about Business Visas in Korea)

There's certainly more to the job application process than a good resume and cover letter, but the guidelines above will help you make the best impression at this stage of the application process.

What You Need to Know About Korean Holiday Greetings and Gatherings

Christmas is a national holiday in Korea and the many Korean Christians do celebrate the day. In addition, the holiday season comes to stores across the nation, just as in the West, though shopping for gifts surely does not reach the frenzied level you'll find in places like the US.

Having said that, Koreans don’t generally hold Christmas parties.

Instead, Koreans are much more focused on the new year, and every self-respecting Korean attends several end-of-year parties (called 송년회 or 연말 모임) each year. These get-togethers are generally held on a personal basis and for business throughout the month of December (not much at all happens on December 31, though). Because the end-of-year gatherings are frequently scheduled months in advance, it can be hard to arrange evening meetings with several people at once during this time because of prior commitments, so try to plan as far ahead as possible if wanting to meet Koreans on business in December.

I'll also point out that because of all the partying (and other factors, such as not knowing what sudden administrative changes the new year will bring), very little business gets done in Korean companies in December, and no important outward-focused decisions at all get made during this navel-gazing time.

Koreans don’t commonly wish each other “Merry Christmas” (though this greeting is becoming more popular, and it is usually expressed in English). Instead, they focus on the new year… Both the Western new year on January 1, and the lunar new year (aka Chinese New Year) in late January or early February. Thus, new year’s greetings are often given twice!

You can't go wrong wishing Koreans a “Happy New Year” and there's really only one way to say it in Korean: “Sae hae bok mani baduseyo” (새해 복 많이 받으세요)

However, in writing, "Happy New Year" can be expanded out in many ways. For ideas, check out these collections of holiday greetings in Korean.

Seeking Korean Partner/Consultant to Promote ESL Website, Part II (How To Connect to Korean Consumers Offline)

A few weeks ago, I was contacted by a former client asking how to market his ESL website to Korean consumers. He's tried various online approaches which haven't worked and my previous article discussed that in detail, including some concise tips at Korea Business Central)

In addition to the online aspects of his efforts, he also asked about how to connect to his market offline:

…To help my chances, I'd like to begin searching for someone in Korea who can help. This person might act as a recruiter, or even work together to launch a new online ESL business. I'm keeping a very open mind on this. So, if you think you might know anyone who'd be interested or can advise me on where to begin looking, please let me know.

Here's my answer:

As I pointed out in my previous post, the market for ESL education in Korea is big, but crowded. I don't think an online-only approach is likely to work in Korea for various reasons. I agree with your conclusion that you need someone on the ground to support you offline. I suspect that "someone" may need to be you, as I'll explain below.

The first reason you can't just market online is simply that there are so many ESL websites out there that, to get seen in your market, you've got to stand out from the crowd with a strategy that does more than just throw time and money at Google, Naver and Daum. 

But beyond that, while there may be a few lone rangers in Korea who are bypassing the offline options and are going to the Internet to resolve their English learning needs, the vast majority of Korean language learners start their search with resources closer to home.

Furthermore, the average student doesn't just call up institutes and English teachers in the local phone book; he/she goes where his/her friends are studying (for kids) or where his/her co-workers are studying (for adults). Though I'm not prepared to say with confidence that this is unique to Korea (or East Asia) because of the group-oriented culture (though this might be an aggravating factor), the normal way for someone to get into the English study track is through personal referrals (often the mothers of other students) or company directives, and usually to a local institute or teacher.

Not just that, while Koreans are certainly interested in learning English due to an internal desire to speak better, the short-term motivation is usually more down-to-earth: to get better grades at school or fulfill a career requirement. And so Korean ESL students will generally put priority on courses that take them over the shortest distance to these external goals, and once they've done that, very few have the time or energy left to also study online with a course that isn't directly linked to these immediate needs. 

Not only are you competing against other English programs geared toward pragmatic ends that enjoy an offline referral network, but you also have to contend with everything else in the average Korean student's schedule. Remember, Korean kids aren't just learning English, they also take after-school classes to learn a ridiculously long list of other subjects and by the time they reach middle school, the diligent students are often getting home from "cram school" at 10pm, 11pm or later… 

One more thing you're working against is the social benefits that kids get from going to the institute. Since they're studying so many hours during the day, the institute is an important place for spending time with friends. But an online option is presumably a one-on-one thing, or at best, a group discussion environment of people from a variety of places who don't know each other. A sizable portion of your market won't be interested in a study approach that removes the social aspects which are rooted in their existing social network. At least, I know that this has been an important factor in my kids' after-school study choices.

It seems to me, then, that you will have to get your business connected to a local network and be able to credibly present your service as an alternative (or better, complement) to local resources that help learners get better grades on their tests at school or meet career requirements at their place of employment. Considering how price inflexible Korean mothers can be when trying to get the best education for their kids, you won't be able to do this with a marketing appeal that focuses mainly on lower cost; you've got to offer quality differentiation on a variety of dimensions that your market will find important.

This will take both strategic marketing AND program development.

It will also take "boots on the ground", though I don't think it will require you to learn Korean or become an expert in the Korean culture, nor do I think you're going to find a stranger willing to recruit for you on a commission-basis. Everybody wants that; just today I received yet another request to help (wait for it…) an online ESL website get students in Korea.

One approach could be to connect to an offline service provider and complement their service without them feeling threatened by your role or being tempted to replace you. What I mean is that by offering lessons by a native-English speaker, you could plug into the teaching efforts of independent Korean teachers or small Korean institutes that are struggling just like you and would benefit from having a native English speaker on staff to supplement the grammar lessons they are giving their students. If kids at an institute are being taught English for three hours a week, you could offer to add on a 30-minute or 60-minute Skype call direct to the classroom with the kids gathered around the computer, to help them practice what they've learned. I suggest small institutes or independent teachers since large institutes and corporations are already making their own arrangements for this and won't be open to your value proposition.

At the same time, you have to figure out how to build relationships or share equity or something else that overcomes conflicts of interest, where your Korean counterparts worry you'll rip off their students after getting access or where you won't worry they'll just change Skype teachers at some point in time. Thus, you're not going to recruit these partners by email.

I suspect you're going to have to come to Korea and immerse yourself in the ESL industry (such as by teaching English) for awhile to make contacts and build relationships and experiment with approaches that work and that Koreans respond to. This knowledge of the market (and a little of the culture, which you can get up to speed on quickly and affordably with the KBC Professional Certification Program) and a lot of sweat equity on the ground is probably the only way to bootstrap your way to a successful online business.

** Visit the related discussion on Korea Business Central: "How Can I Market My Web-Based ESL Business Offline to Korean Language Learners?"

Seeking Korean Partner/Consultant to Promote ESL Website, Part I (How To Market Online to Korean Consumers)

** Visit the related discussion on Korea Business Central: "How Can I Market My Business Online to Korean Consumers?"

The Internet has opened up possibilities for new business models, and many new online businesses are sprouting up in the field of teaching English as a second language. It's not hard to understand why. Rather than fly native English speakers around the world to live in unfamiliar surroundings to teach English to locals, instructors can now connect to students over Skype and educate without travelling. It's a great way to reduce costs and avoid other cultural and logistical difficulties while delivering value to language learners the world over.

With falling barriers to entry, the field has gotten crowded though, with thousands of websites cropping up to offer these virtual/remote English lessons. Over the years, my team and I have had the privilege of translating a few of these sites to Korean so that our clients can connect to the market in Korea for ESL instruction. Unfortunately, a nice website that communicates well is only the first step, as the following message from a previous client makes clear. 

Hi Steven, My name is ________. Last year I had you do the translation for my ESL website. I was impressed with your service, and knowledge of Korea, so I wanted to reach out to you on something. So far, I've had a real tough time attracting business in Korea. Early on I had foolishly spent money on Google Adwords, and Twitter advertising, which didn't generate results. Not to mention large amounts of time with social networks, and the like. When I found out about the popularity of Naver & Daum, I hired a professional SEO service to optimize my site, along with "guest blog posts". After that, I saw a small uptick in traffic, but still not converting into new clients. It's been frustrating, and depressing at times. I'm willing to the spend the time and money, but I feel like not knowing the Korean language and culture is putting me at a disadvantage….

 I answered my client as follows.

It's nice to hear from you. I remember working on the Korean localization of your website and I'm glad to hear that our service met your expectations. I recall that your attitude to the localization process put quality above cost and I believe you when you say you're willing to spend the time and money to make the endeavor work. In fact, as someone who has spent a ridiculous amount of money and effort on online marketing efforts of various kinds, I have a great deal of sympathy for your situation.

You asked near the beginning of our business relationship about the value of having Korean text alongside English YouTube videos and about whether it would be effective in attracting Korean students. I just dug back into my archives and found my following reply: 

"It's a tough call, especially as you're jumping into a very competitive market. If you've got the marketing strategy in place to support the YouTube funnel, then of course, the Korean text can be an asset. If you're not sure what kind of traffic you can pull to these videos, you might put that cost off until later. I've seen more than one businessperson (myself included!) spend a lot of money to get all set up only to find that the marketing is lacking." 

In advising you, I'd like to first discuss some insights about online marketing in Korea. At this point, I should point out that I don't think this will ultimately be cost-effective for you in your business, but the following does describe a starting point for understanding how a successful campaign might be put together.

You mention that Google Adwords was a waste of money. It all depends on what niche you're in, but for ESL, I'm sure the bid prices on keywords are through the roof and too many non-converting visitors will drain your bank account quickly. The only way to make it work is to have a deep sales pipeline with an integrated range of goods and services that you're marketing effectively to those who click on your Adwords ads. Top advertisers on major keywords are prepared to lose money on the initial leads in order to harvest value over a longer period of time.

I'd be interested to know how you operated and targeted your Google advertising. Did you do it yourself? Regardless of what Google says, Adwords is not for the faint of heart, and not just because the tools are complicated (and getting more so everyday) and the underlying algorithms secret. I would even say that Google's representations of their system to novice advertisers are even misleading and incomplete. But as you may have found out, working with a competent (or even incompetent!) SEM professional is expensive, and even if your consultant does know what he/she is doing, you often won't get the level of focused and sustained attention you need to make it work. 

In fact, in your market, there are bound to be a lot of competitors, some with deep pockets (thanks to cash flow from offline, successful English institutes in Korea but without a sustainable strategy), just throwing money into the marketing effort. This makes Google rich, but leaves everyone else paying more than they should.

Furthermore, running a Google Adwords campaign in English isn't going to get you very close to your market since your potential students probably aren't doing most of their searching in English. That means your ads need to be localized, too. But since Google Adwords isn't a set-it-and-forget-it approach, you can't just get your ads translated once somewhere and then throw them up online. The ads must be constantly monitored and optimized, not just from a standard marketing perspective but also in terms of language and culture, which makes it a high-touch/high-specialization/high-cost adventure. (BTW, I've written about a surprising aspect of character limitations that applies to Korean ads on Google Adwords.)

Besides, even if you do get your online marketing program going effectively on Google in Korean for Korean consumers located in Korea, you'll then be reaching… just 10-15% of the search market. As you noted already, the movers and shakers in the Korean market are still Naver (with about 60-70% of the market) and Daum (with around 20-30%).

You said that you tried SEO for the Korean search engines, but these native Korean portals also run their own proprietary advertiser tools modeled on Google Adwords. The interfaces are in Korean and the complicated Korean government-mandated requirements make it next-to-impossible to register to advertise as a non-Korean. I tried it about a year ago on Naver just to see if I could, and I barely managed to sign up, but I still had to register as an overseas marketer since my websites are owned by my US corporation, which meant that the process had to be jury-rigged to get me through the ad approvals every time. I ultimately never did anything with it; just too much trouble. This means you would ultimately have to work with a Korean agency to get directly to Daum and Naver, and to do that, you're looking at talent of dubious competence and high cost and you won't be able to transparently monitor the process.

At any rate, if you do choose to move forward with online marketing to Korean search engine users, I would recommend the following approach which, done right, would minimize your costs and maximize your effectiveness.

Stage 1 - The online advertising interfaces of the Korean portals are primitive compared to the Google system and I don't recommend you start with them. Instead, work with an SEM provider who is qualified to advertise on Google in English and supplement this with a Korean language consultant who can localize and adjust ads as instructed by the SEM professional. Keep this up until you've got a strong campaign going that generates profitable leads and until you've exhausted the potential that Google is giving you in its 20% of the Korean search market. Be sure you have Google Analytics installed on your site and know how to use it; you'll need that both to optimize for Google, as well as for Stage 2 below.

Stage 2 – Once you've wrung out all the value from Stage 1, you're ready to attack the Korean portals. Do this by working through an SEM professional in Korea. You won't need the best expert here (good thing, because they're hard to find!); just someone who knows the nuts and bolts and has an account that is authorized to to resell advertising for foreign advertisers on the Korean portals. Make it clear that you'll be providing the optimized ads and keywords from your Google campaign and so only minor optimization within the Naver and Daum ecosystems will be required. Then feed the ads, keywords and other demographic information directly or through your Korean language consultant to the Naver/Daum seller and tell them to set it up.

Normally, advertising on the Korean portals would be a black box, since you won't have easy access to what's going on there. But because you'll have the results of your Google campaigns to benchmark against, you can simply watch carefully through Google Analytics to make sure your Korean campaigns are generating results on par with Google. As you continue to optimize your Google campaigns, you can have your Naver and Daum campaigns updated as well.

Regarding marketing on SNS, don't bother unless you're prepared to engage in time-consuming conversation with your market. On the other hand, there are umpteen online "cafes" which you could join on Daum or Naver. These are online meeting places that bring together groups of people interested in the same topic. Some would be focused on learning English and if you were to make your presence known in these spots, such as by sharing value in the discussions, you might be able to get closer to your market. However, I haven't tried it and I don't know how practical it is because of the Korean-language interfaces. Done strategically, it could at least would get you into an under-served area away from the crowds at Facebook and Twitter. Even so, these are still vibrant online discussion forums in Korea today.

As for general search engine optimization, well, there's so much content out there now in the ESL field that I don't know how you'd ever get heard amidst everything else. Ultimately, I think you'll need to reach out to your market; not hope they find you through organic SEO. 

** Visit the related discussion on Korea Business Central: "How Can I Market My Business Online to Korean Consumers?"

Considerations of Current Location When Applying for a Job in Korea

** Visit the related discussion on Korea Business Central: "Is is possible to apply for a job when a person is out of Korea? Or I should just go to Korea and start applying for jobs while I am there?"

Many factors are involved in the process of applying for a new job, and one that comes into play for those trying to get a job in Korea is whether it's possible to apply from outside Korea, or whether one needs to be physically present in Korea in order to be competitive for a new position with a Korean company. Along these lines, I received the following inquiry from someone in my network a few days ago.

Question

Dear Steven, I am writing this email to seek some advice from you. I have been applying to Korean companies lately…. I have a good career track and I speak Korean fluently. However, whenever recruiters learn that I am currently out of Korea, all of a sudden I get rejected. Now, I am not sure whether it is because they don't trust me or they are afraid to hire a person who has been with a Korean company for such a long time. At first they all praise my educational background and language capabilities, but they seem to have difficulties trusting someone they have not met personally. Based on your opinion, do you think it is possible to apply for a job when a person is out of Korea? Or I should just go to Korea and start applying for jobs while I am there? Thanks.

Answer

The answer to this question depends on the jobs you're applying for and the qualifications you bring to the position. If the companies you are applying for are able to easily fill their positions with equally qualified applicants in Korea who they can meet in person, then why would they commit themselves to a contract with you that has to be faxed back and forth to get signed?

I know you're not looking for an ESL job, but if you were, it would not be necessary to apply from Korea since the demand for English teachers is steady and surpasses the number of foreigners in Korea available to fill them all. 

But moving one step up, there are umpteen English teachers in Korea who would like to move into a Korean corporate position of one type or another. These positions generally involve performing a language-related function in the company. Because there are more applicants than positions, someone trying to get one of these jobs from overseas does not stand a chance against those who have their feet on the ground and a network through which to hear about openings. These jobs often get filled long before they ever reach a public jobs board.

As you don't mention that you are applying through an executive recruiting firm, I assume that you're not looking for a top management or highly specialized/high-paid position. This would indicate to me you're still early in your career. I realize that you aren't applying for an English-focused position either, but you may want to ask yourself if the positions you're trying to get can be filled easily by someone already in Korea working in an ESL or other similar posiition.

It may be that you just haven't been a perfect fit for any of the positions you've applied for and the rejections have nothing to do with your current location. Perhaps it'll just take some persistence. If your qualifications are strong and match the market in Korea, then you might just have to keep trying. Have you gone back to any of the recruiters you applied to before to get their feedback on why you weren't hired? You might not get straight answers when the rejection is still fresh, but if you were to contact them them 2-3 months later once they can't misunderstand your question as an attempt to keep trying for the job, they might give you some honest and helpful insights.

A trip to Korea to look for a job isn't necessarily a bad idea, especially if you'd like to visit anyway. But if you've currently got a job back home, you'll only have a week or two of vacation time and that's probably not enough to do more than have a few initial meetings. You'll also only be able to avail yourself of opportunities available during the window of time you're in Korea and there won't be time to build and work a personal network on the ground. But if you just come to Korea to "hang out" until something happens, potential employers will not be impressed if your period of being unemployed becomes extended. And working as an English teacher to pay the bills in the meantime is not a great resume filler either.

So, what can you do to be in Korea long enough for good to things happen but without wasting time? Taking an intensive Korean language course for a semester or two is a great way to do this. You can apply for jobs in-country, improve your skills and build your network without having a hole in your resume. I know you said you're already fluent in Korean, but does that mean there aren't any Korean-language courses you could take at your level? Fine, suppose there aren't… Then why don't you enroll in the masters program at a Korean university? I'm partial to Hanyang University, since that's where I earned my masters degree, but there are plenty of other good places too. And here's the best part… Tuition in the regular grad schools of Korean universities is much cheaper than for international MBAs. Furthermore, the graduate school classes at some schools (such as Hanyang) are in Korean, rather than English, so you'll get to put your advanced Korean skills to use and improve on them.

Finally, you mentioned that you are working for a Korean company now. Is there no way to get transferred to Korea for a short- or long-term assignment? Perhaps you could get transferred to Korea into a position that may not be exactly what you're looking for. Then, once you're in Korea, you could keep applying for positions you really want elsewhere. If you succeed, the Korean company will think twice before letting another employee at an overseas office do the same thing again, but at least you'll be moving forward in your career by that time.

BTW, your situation is a good example of how Korean language skills are not an automatic ticket to career success in Korea. I wrote an article about this recently: Reflections on the Benefits of Learning Korean to One's Career in Korea

I hope it works out for you. Let me know what happens.

** Visit the related discussion on Korea Business Central: "Is is possible to apply for a job when a person is out of Korea? Or I should just go to Korea and start applying for jobs while I am there?"

“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.

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Reflections on Face and What It Really Means for Life and Business in Korea

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One of the appeals of the Far East to many Westerners is the mysteriousness of these cultures that we are told have been around for so long and developed independently of Western influences. With all the yin-yang thinking, concepts of body centers of energy in martial arts and Oriental medicine (e.g. acupuncture) and other "deep" ways of seeing things, can we be anything less than awed?

A concept that gets bandied about a lot when describing E. Asian culture is "face" and it is sometimes described as an especially important aspect of life in Asia that should be respected at all cost. However, I've had my doubts that the Western conception of face is more than an approximation of the true meaning of it in Asia or that it's any different than a universal desire not to be humiliated or insulted. (See previous blog post from 2011.)

This article explores the topic and attempts to identify nuances of face in Korea (and by extension, Korean business) that are overlooked in the common Western understanding.

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Some Definitions

My first encounter with "face" came just a month or two into my Korea experience back in 1994 when the Korean owner of my place of employment fought with my American boss in public and afterward was heard saying (in English), "I lost my face"… Notwithstanding that adding "my" to the sentence changes the nuance in English a bit, I recall wondering how he would have expressed this thought in Korean. It took me awhile to figure out what the Korean words and phrases are for face and its variants, so for the record, here they are:

  • face – 체면 (chaemyeon)

The word is derived from Chinese, with the first character meaning "body" and the second meaning "face, surface, side". The dictionary on Naver describes chaemyeon in Korean as "sense of one's duty or face that one presents to others". This is a little (but not much) different than "one's sense of honor or dignity", that I would say is probably the best way to represent the meaning of face in English. 

  • lose face – 체면을 잃다
  • save face – 체면이 서다
  • to be honorable – 체면이 있다
  • to be dishonorable – 체면이 없다

These are not words and phrases Koreans use all that often though and they are not standard terms you would normally hear when a Korean is expressing embarrassment, offense, anger, or even certain types of shame. It's also not the word a Korean would use when talking about how they feel after losing in a competition or negotiation. It might not even be the most appropriate term to use in the context of getting tricked or deceived, unless it involves some deeper personal disgrace.

On the other hand, Koreans might discuss chaemyeon when referring to information about themselves that they wouldn't want to share publicly if it would make others think less of them, or when wondering why someone else would behave in such an undignified way ("Have they no shame?").

So what's really different between Korean "face" and Western "honor"?

"Face" Seems to Be an Inexact Western Interpretation of Asian Chaemyeon

4016608384_40dc9403afThere's a dish in Korea called "donkas" (돈까스 in Korean and most often translated to English as "pork cutlet" – Photo of donkas at left used with permission from ZenKimchi.com). One thing that makes this meal interesting to me is that it's a Korean interpretation of a Japanese interpretation of a Western meal. It's popular enough in Korea to be a true Korean food (kind of like tacos are to Texans), but having originated elsewhere and been adapted to Japanese and then Korean tastes, it's not exactly what we'd expect from a pork steak dish back home.

The reason I bring this up is to illustrate how a concept can change when it moves from one culture through the filters of another.

In my 2011 article mentioned above, I suggested that the concept of saving face as we often understand it may have been the brainchild of a Westerner observing things about Asian culture that were hard to for him to understand. I've suspected that since Asians have been hearing Westerners talk about Asian face for so long, they've started to believe the rhetoric themselves and have come to see it as a uniquely Asian trait after all. 

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I recently had the opportunity to see what a Korean understanding of the Western concept of face might look like when reading the book 박근혜의 인생. I picked this book up because I thought it was going to be a biography of the current Korean president, but it turned out to just be some guy's hagiographic exposition on President Keun-Hye Park's wonderful traits as a leader. It's a crummy book. (I'm not saying she's a crummy leader, BTW.) But one spot that caught my attention was on page 193 where he quoted another book describing Park and then added his own explanation. The following is the original Korean passage and then my translation of it, and I added the red font for emphasis.

"굉장히 냉철하고 자기중심이 확고하다. 상황이 어려울 때 참모가 우왕좌왕해도 지도자는 자기중심을 잃으면 안 되는 법이다. 어떤 상왕에도 자기 페이스를 잃어버리지 않기 쉽지 않은데 이처럼 갖기 어려운 자질을 갖췄다."

– 진희정, 박근혜 사타일, 154쫒

어떤 상황에서도 자기 페이스를 잃어버리지 않는 그런 자질을 그녀가 가질 수 있게 된 또 다른 이유 중의 하나는 그녀는 최선의 노력과 지혜를 다한 사람은 하늘의 뜻을 겸허하게 받아들이고 초연할 수 있다는 사실에 대한 확신 때문일 것이다.

“She is extremely level-headed and firmly maintains her sense of balance. When things are difficult, and even if one’s staff can’t make up their minds, a leader must not lose her bearings. It’s easy to lose face in any situation, but she has this kind of rare character trait.”

– Geun-Hye Park’s Style (Hee-Jeong Jin), p. 154

Another of the reasons that she has the character trait of never losing face in any situation is that she is certain of the fact that people who exert their best efforts and act wisely can humbly accept the will of Heaven and rise above it.

I don't think the author ever used the Korean word chaemyeon in this book; but here, he quotes another Korean author using the Korean transliteration of the English word "face" and then uses it himself in the same context. Both authors seem to understand "losing face" when written with an English pronunciation as being the opposite of "calm, cool and collected", which is not quite the same as the way Westerners understand it. 

Sometimes Koreans use foreign words to express concepts that carry connotations not as easily expressed in Korean (other examples include "leader – 리더", "charisma – 카리스마" and "style – 스타일"). And in this case, it turns out that "face" can be another word Koreans, at least sometimes, choose to interpret from an outside perspective and not using Korean terminology.

This tells me that the concept of "face" is at least partially something Koreans are interested in because they've heard so much about it but that they don't feel entirely comfortable using chaemyeon to describe what they're thinking we mean by it. It also tells me that "face" and chaemyeon don't actually mean exactly the same thing, and apparently even the word "face" has different nuances for Westerners and Koreans.

Face is merely an approximation of chaemyeon, and not something particularly unique to Asia. In any culture, nobody anywhere likes to have their honor or dignity compromised.

So, if this is what face is, what's chaemyeon?

Face in Korea is Not Uniquely Korean, But It is Manifested in Uniquely Korean Ways

I've recently been watching a Korean TV series on KBS called Eun-hee. It's the fictional story of several families trying to come to terms with events that happened before and after the Korean War. These modern TV "dramas" (which is another English word used in Korean with an English pronunciation but slightly different meaning) set in the 1950s, 60s and 70s are particularly interesting to me. Perhaps it's because I didn't experience this Korean history directly and shows like this let me see, not what it was really like back then, but what Koreans of today want to remember it was like during those years.

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Anyway, in a series of recent episodes, the good-for-nothing nephew of the owner of a tofu factory embezzles money from the company and tries to blame it on Eun-hee, the lead character of the show. Amid rampant rumors among the factory staff, it gradually comes to light who the real perpetrator is and the characters are left figuring out how to deal with the situation.

Several options are considered and attempted. Since the guilty party is the nephew of the president, it would really reflect badly on the good owner to announce the truth to the factory workers, but the president can't let the issue slide either (that would look bad too). Somebody has to take the fall for the crime and Eun-hee is about to get fired. However, before this happens, a friend of Eun-hee borrows money and gives it to the company management saying he'll take responsibility for the crime, and then quit his job. Eventually, another friend of Eun-hee's sells his camera equipment to get some money, which he then takes to the nephew, telling him to return it to his aunt (the owner), explain it was an oversight and apologize for an honest mistake. This is what ends up happening.

We see the Asian concept of "face" in various forms here. To expose the nephew would have shamed the owner because it was her relative. But to leave the crime unpunished would have also called into question the owner's commitment to a clean work environment. On the other hand, to punish Eun-hee would have been terribly unfair, so her friends looked for options — and eventually found one — to save everyone's chaemyeon.

Somehow, in a Western context, I think we would find this situation pitiful. If the owner of the company can't keep her nephew in check, she should kick him out. Letting someone else take the fall for it, though not unheard of in a Western context (called "scapegoating"), is simply shameful. I don't think a Westerner would be terribly impressed by the efforts of the friends either to take false responsibility themselves. 

But in a Korean setting, this is a story of heroism and evokes sympathy for just about everyone (except the nephew). I would say this cuts to the essence of what "face" really is in Korea. It's not that Koreans have a unique sense of honor, it's that they prioritize it above some other values (an honest reckoning of wrong or squeezing the last advantage out of a situation, for instance) to avoid situations that would bring unpleasantness out into the open.

6a011279704a5b28a4014e89940928970d-800wiI'll point out that this Asian concept of face reminds me of the doctrine of atonement in Christian theology, where someone's got to take the punishment for sin, and it doesn't necessarily have to be the person who did the crime. This came to mind several years ago when former Korean President Moo-Hyeon Roh committed suicide during a corruption investigation. (Photo at right is the site of President Roh's death and his memorial from my photo weblog.) He doesn't appear to have been completely clean, but he must have judged that his death would a) atone for whatever errors were committed, both for himself and for others, b) bring the investigation to an end for everyone involved, and c) allow those who had previously worked with him to move on in their political careers without the baggage of the scandal. As for a), his political enemies still see him as seriously flawed, but his decision was successful in terms of b) and c), especially as his former confidante Jae-In Moon made a respectable run for the presidency last year.

Applying the Concepts of Face and Chaemyeon to Life and Business in Korea

I have found (from unhappy experience, sometimes) that showing unpleasant emotions in business in Korea can be unexpectedly counterproductive. It can be tempting to cross the line of civility since, for example, a Korean is more likely than a Westerner to stay on the line while being yelled at over the phone. Koreans will often appear to maintain their cool (and even a smile or laugh!) in an awkward situation, but this apparent calmness should not be mistaken for compliance or agreement. Verification of intent may require waiting for actions, rather than words.

Being aggressive with a smile rather than a frown, using extra words to avoid coming out and saying things directly, yielding on small points and even behaving in passive aggressive ways could all be more effective negotiating techniques in a Korean setting than a bulldozer approach. (Nevermind that "bulldozer" is the somewhat popular nickname given to some Koreans who've been successful in business, such as former Korean President Myung-Bak Lee (who was less successful with this approach in politics of late)).

Westerners doing business in Korea would be advised to handle awkward situations with a delicate hand and with as little direct confrontation as possible. It's not that wrong must be overlooked, but a solution that doesn't require people to admit error overtly can go a long way toward keeping important relationships going. Even if everyone knows what happened and the outcome is the same, the path toward that income in Korea is likely to have more bends and turns than it would in a similar situation in the West and if you stay cool, important relationships may just survive the turmoil.

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Reflections on the Benefits of Learning Korean to One’s Career in Korea

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Learning Korean is tough; there are no two ways about it. When I first came to Korea, I planned to conquer Korean in two years and then do the same with Chinese and Japanese after that. I figured that would make me something special. However, it didn't take me long to realize that Korean was the only language of the three in which I'd manage to achieve proficiency, and that improving those skills would be a lifelong project. 

I've met other Westerners who have started along this journey but gotten discouraged. Here's a typical question and my answer to it.

Q: Will Korean skills boost my career opportunities in Korea?

A: I would like to say that the answer is a definite "yes"; however, as with many aspects of life in Korea, the answer is nuanced.

It can be a discouraging reality to accept, but your Korean abilities are not going to fast-track you in your career in Korea. In fact, though Korean skills may work in your favor if competing against someone for a job who doesn't know Korean, it is unlikely your Korean will be a crucial factor in the hiring process, no matter what job you apply for.

In general, if you're from an English-speaking country, you'll likely find your best job opportunities in positions that take advantage of your English abilities, and once that happens, your Korean is no longer an asset; in some cases, it's a disadvantage if your prospective employer is concerned you’ll be more focused on learning Korean than on helping your coworkers and/or students improve their English. Your employer is more likely to appreciate your Korean abilities if they didn't hire you for your English, but your Korean still won't be a key factor in the hiring process.

Way back when I taught English, I remember trying to inject Korean into my classes. Students (understandably) hated that. Later, when working in the LG Group as an editor/writer (and later, off-and-on translator), I was given strict instructions NOT to speak Korean in the office. I recall trying to refer an American friend to a position that had opened up in the company and when I mentioned to the director that my friend was fluent in Korean, he flat out told me nobody cared about that. Even now in my Ph.D. studies at Hanyang University, the semi-frequent job offers I get from the university to teach always involve helping the university fulfill the government-mandated requirement for classes taught in English and I often sense disappointment that I'm so focused on doing my coursework in Korean.

Having said that, I can think of some situations where your Korean skills could be helpful. The first would be where you have been hired for your English skills but where your Korean abilities let you understand and participate in office communications. This may make your more effective and fulfilled in your job. But as a foreigner, you won’t be on a career path to which you can apply this effectiveness and so the main benefit is likely to be found in helping you avoid some of the feelings of isolation that you'd encounter otherwise. But plenty of non-Koreans without Korean skills have managed their way through those situations, so it's not absolutely necessary.

You may also find that your Korean skills let you discover roles that wouldn't otherwise have existed. Your ability to leverage these roles would then be the determining factor in where you go from there. For example, being good at Korean can generate a lot of curiosity and if managed strategically may lead to hidden opportunities. I’ve encountered a few of those, such as being appointed Foreign-Investment Advisor to Gyeonggi Province when the Governor was impressed with my Korean. But networking opportunities are not the same as a career path. Besides, English skills are also a point of curiosity with Koreans and this can open doors, too. Thus, being stubborn in using Korean can close some of those English-oriented doors of opportunity, as well.

One more observation…. Even though speaking Korean is not going to make your career, the longer you spend in Korea without learning the language to a certain degree of proficiency, the more of a drag it may be on you, both personally and professionally. One reason is that Koreans may question your commitment to the country and your diligence if you never move beyond English interactions, and this can affect professional perceptions, too. Thus, speaking Korean may not help much, but not speaking Korean may also not be so great. Eventually, those who don’t learn Korean (and many who do!) end up “moving on” and not sticking around.

Speaking Korean often feels like a “brownie point” earner more than a killer resume skill. It’s a career asset if used strategically, but even that's not easy. And social pressure in Korea can provide a compelling excuse NOT to learn Korean.

I would say that if career opportunities are your primary motivation to learn Korean, then it’s not worth the trouble. The Korean learning process must have deeper value for you in personal ways — such as the satisfaction you get from communicating in a difficult language and cultural context — and that requires a special love for Korea.

When Koreans learn English, they can travel the world and meet people from many countries; when we learn Korean, we can… well, we can travel around Korea and meet Koreans. Ultimately, learning Korean is a niche endeavor that narrows (but deepens) your options. 

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