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Korean business culture

Reading the air

Musings on intercultural management

May 25, 2021 (Gmt+09:00)

For the past 18 years I have worked in East Asia, four of them here in Korea and the last ten for the Swiss national trade and investment agency called “Switzerland Global Enterprise”. In this capacity, I have consulted hundreds of Swiss companies and organizations on their market entry and market expansion in Japan and Korea.

I have also consulted many Japanese and Korean companies on their investment and R&D projects in Switzerland. Before I joined the agency, I was involved in regional economic development research in China, the Philippines and Japan. So I am, what the British call, “an old Asia hand”.

Recently I was invited as a speaker to an internal training session for young Swiss diplomats. One participant asked what the biggest challenge for Swiss and Korean companies in dealings with business partners from the other country was. I answered that it depends on the industry and the company-specific elements. I went on, saying that arguably the most basic challenge in virtually all cases is culture, namely business culture.

It goes without saying that there are quite a few differences in terms of mentality and business culture between Europe and Asia. Many Europeans are having a hard time distinguishing between Chinese, Korean or Japanese business culture. The regular European or Swiss manager, unless he or she is very experienced, does not notice these differences at first sight.

The same might be true for the regular Korean manager. He or she too might have difficulties in understanding the fine differences in business culture between the many European countries. Alone in the EU, there are 24 official languages and some sources indicate a total of around 150 different languages in the whole of Europe. The business culture landscape is even more diverse. In large countries such as Germany, France or Italy for instance, there are important regional differences in business culture, even though there is a common language. In my small country Switzerland with just 8.5 million people, we have four official languages in addition to English as a business language. And the business culture in Geneva is rather different than the one in St. Gallen.

A Korean manager responsible for Europe would face a rich mosaic of cultural challenges. Communication problems due to language differences are common in every international context. Here is a question for you: what is the most used business language? English? Wrong! It’s Bad English. Unless you are a native speaker or at native-speaker level in a language, finer details in the meaning of words, expressions and sayings might escape you.

Now just imagine a business negotiation between a Swiss manager with bad English and a native Korean speaker with bad English. Misunderstanding will not be the exception but the rule! Interpretation by professionals might help, but are time-consuming and add other difficulties. If you speak via a third party, it is difficult to build an emotional bond between the negotiators. Additionally, you never can be quite sure if the interpreter translates what you wish to convey. Different languages are one thing. Non-verbal signals in conversations are as important as the spoken word.

In some cultures, people use facial expressions and hand gestures to emphasize their talk. Italians for instance are world renowned for their hand gestures in discussions. This can be very irritating for people who are not used to such expressive body language. Before I came to East Asia, I also used hand gestures to support my talk. I noticed that people then were looking at my hands rather than looking me in the face. It was irritating for them and for me. In most Asian countries such excessive body language is frowned upon. Besides verbal and body language there is a third element crucial to any business talk: the atmosphere of a discussion.

In my experience, Asian managers are much better at sensing the atmosphere in a group than their European counterparts. There is a reason why for instance Koreans have the concept of “nunchi” or for Japanese, “kuuki wo yomu” (reading the air). The existence of such expressions in both languages indicates that people are very sensitive to the ambiance in a social context and that they have cultural techniques to influence it in subtle ways to prevent from any disturbance. Europeans are not immune to such signals, but my working hypothesis in intercultural settings is that Asian people are much more sensitive to ambient conditions.

Some people compare nunchi with what Dan Goleman in 1995 popularized as “emotional intelligence”. I think this is a poor comparison. Nunchi is much more than emotional intelligence, it does not only involve your emotions but all your senses, social, cognitive, moral. Nunchi might be better captured by a later Goleman concept called “social intelligence” (2006).

As Korean culture is becoming a global phenomenon, so is Korean business culture. Prominent Korean multinational companies as well as innovative startups are often in the headlines of international business news. The success of books such as The Power of Nunchi by Hong Euny, The Evolution of Tiger Management by Martin Hemmert or Samsung Rising by Geoffrey Cain further contribute to the global interest in Korean business culture.

Western managers with an interest in Korea are well advised to familiarize themselves with Korean business culture, notably the concept of nunchi. In my view, this is a critical success factor.

Reading the air

Roger Zbinden is head of Swiss Business Hub South Korea. The Swiss Business Hub South Korea is the Seoul-based representative of the official international trade and investment promotion agency Switzerland Global Enterprise (S-GE). 

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