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First Contact

Doing Business in South Korea

KIBUN: HARMONY and MAINTENANCE of GOOD FEELINGS Never embarrass another person especially in public. If you are complimented, refute the compliment but at the same time, compliment your counterpart. Do not criticize your competitors or admit that you do not have the answer to a question. In fact, a few business scholars mention that maintaining harmony and good rapport with Koreans are extremely important in building a business relationship.

Kibun (pronounced kee-boon) places harmony and maintenance of good feelings as the highest order in any relationship. Social etiquette and behavior are centered on it. As much as possible, each person maintains a harmonious environment in which his or her kibun can stay balanced. More importantly, a person will avoid upsetting another person’s kibun.

Kibun's Role in Business As mentioned earlier, the reach of kibun’s importance extends to business relationships. Your counterpart may always appear to be good-natured and friendly and will exert their full efforts in avoiding saying no or delivering bad news.

As such, the foreign businessperson must learn to read between the lines or interpret hints of the slightest business difficulties. Indeed, a "yes" or nod of the head may mean "maybe" or "I understand." A "maybe" usually means "no" while a negative response is sometimes indicated by a squint of the eyes or by tipping the head back while drawing air in through the teeth and waiting for you to speak again.

In order to maintain the balance of kibun, avoid the following topics in your conversation: Japan, local politics, socialism, communism, and your host’s wife. Among good conversational topics include Korean cultural heritage, kites, sports (especially the Olympics), and the health of their family (do not talk about their families unless these have something to do with their health).

Do not be surprised if personal questions are asked of you. Since personal contacts are business contacts, it is good for your Korean counterpart to know you. Always be modest about your position and your accomplishments. Do not maintain as much eye contact as you normally would because continuous eye contact with a Korean may appear hostile or too aggressive. Lastly, do not use any triangular shapes in your promotional material since triangles have negative meanings.





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