Global Leadership Blog

International Mindset: South Korea and Diversity

This blog post is written by Annika Hoeltje, senior consultant at Lamson Consulting:

On my flight to Seoul I had an interesting conversation with the woman next to me, who is from South Korea but has been living in the USA for several years. She tells me that her parents sent her to live with a family in the USA when she was twelve.

“Twelve!?”

It seems like an early age to send your child so far away from home. (At age sixteen I left Germany and spent one year in an American host family.) She tells me that it is not uncommon for South Korean families – who can afford it – to send their children away in an early age to learn another culture, language and to have opportunities they might not have in South Korea. She goes on to tell me about her Father, who has a very successful business in Seoul. He arranges it so that she can go home every year to see him, her mother, and siblings.

“Our parents just want the best for us,” she explains. “We can still decide where we want to live later on, but they don’t want us to be limited in our chances – to be fluent in English and to have a good education provides you with endless possibilities.”

Endless possibilities – This seems to be the theme today for the complex nation of South Korea. Social relations may still be grounded in ancient Confucianism but it’s a forward-thinking country thanks to its “hurry-hurry” approach to everything, as well as an insatiable appetite for technological advancement. With a determined can-do attitude no-one knows for sure where the country is headed, but it’s fast-forward all the way.

South Korea was one of the few developed countries that were able to avoid a recession during the global financial crisis, and its economic growth rate reached 6.2 percent in 2010.

Of course I seize my opportunity and talk to my seat neighbor about Korean lifestyle and business culture. She tells me, that both are still very traditional.

“Is it true,” I ask her, “that people still bow when they meet?”
“Of course,” she replies, “… and the older or the more status the person you meet with has, the deeper you bow and the higher you hold your hands while pressing them flat together.”

“Interesting,” I reply and ask, “what if you don’t know who is older?”
“Then both just bow.” She continues: “Of course you bow to your parents but also to your older brother or sister and address them with a specific name, which indicates that they are the elder. Younger siblings are only addressed by their first name.”

“How about when meeting with other cultures? Are they expected to follow the traditional protocol in a business meeting?” I ask.

“Yes, when doing business with Westerners, Koreans usually still bow before shaking hands to show their respect and others should know to do the same.”
Upon reflection in my conversations with my Chinese colleagues in the Shanghai office, they tell me that even for the Chinese, Koreans are still very traditional. They went on to say that they are even more indirect in their communication than the Chinese, which sometimes leads to miscommunication between colleagues from the two Asian countries.

A Chinese manager explains, “When a Korean person wants to tell you something they need at least ten sentences, where we would use four.”

“The German would probably use one.” I add, and we laugh.

From this example you can see, when talking about cultural differences, it’s never about a pure either-or, it’s about tendencies. Everyone falls on a scale. It also exemplifies that communication styles vary a great deal between the Asian countries. Those of us not from Asia, need to remember that. Of course in terms of values there is no such thing as one Asia – just as there is no such thing as one Europe or one The Americas.

To be successful you have to be aware of this vast Diversity. Lucky for me, a long plane ride is the perfect opportunity to learn.

Melissa Lamson

About The Author

Melissa Lamson, Founder and President of Lamson Consulting, is an author, consultant, and speaker who accelerates the business expansion goals of today’s most successful companies by developing global mindset, refining leadership skills, and bridging cross cultural communication. More About Melissa Lamson