Four Principles to Understanding and Expressing “No” in a Korean Business Setting

Develop Your Noonchi!

By KBC Creator Steven S. Bammel

From the Korea Business Advisor column in the January 2012 issue of Seoul Magazine.

2012010174646When doing business in Korea, many foreigners find themselves frustrated when getting to a “no” answer involves an unnecessarily long process and when Koreans verbalize intent that conflicts with their actions, such as saying, “Yes, I’ll do it” and then making up excuses or dragging their feet on projects, job offers and social invitations.

Without a clear understanding of a few key aspects of the Korean mindset, it is difficult to understand what’s going on. Keep the following principles in mind and work to develop your noonchi to figure things out faster and save yourself a lot of grief in business in Korea.

1. Koreans willfully choose not to be clear.

First of all, I need to dispel the myth that Korean is a language which lacks precision and that necessitates vagueness. Don’t believe it for a second; it’s not true! I’ve translated thousands of documents over the past decade and a half and I can tell you with authority that Koreans are not linguistically limited in their ability to express their minds directly. There’s nothing in Korean that prevents the speaker or writer from saying “no” with the same bluntness that we do in English. Thus, when a Korean does not speak directly, it is often due to cultural reasons, such as the fact that Koreans are not comfortable saying “no” when the other party is hoping for a “yes”.

6a011279704a5b28a40162fd6b0a89970d250wi2. Excuses are not (usually) lies and non-performance is not (usually) non-cooperation.

Finding yourself face-to-face with a Korean who won’t say “no”, such as by coming up with excuses (even false ones!), does not mean you’re dealing with a malicious liar. This is a tough reality for many jaded Westerners to admit, but if an excuse or non-performance is intended as cover by the Korean for a “no” response and there is adequate Korean cultural basis to interpret the cues and reach a correct “no” conclusion, it is not fair to label these non-“no”s as lies in a Korean setting.

In fact, there’s a word in Korean that specifically expresses one’s ability to see through the smokescreens. It’s called “noonchi”, and you’ll do well to develop this skill in triangulating the signals to the correct “yes” and “no” responses.

3. “Yes” doesn’t mean “yes” as often as we might wish, too.

While not as extreme as in Japan, Korean society values the maintenance of social harmony. Expressing a desire (even insincerely) to do things that would show consideration for the other person is a way to keep up the positive energy. Thus, there are many times when an invitation or promise to do something really means, “I’d really like to do that and I’m saying this so you’ll feel good but I probably won’t be able to do it because I’ve got a lot of other stuff on my plate right now already.”

If you aren’t ready to figure out when “yes” means “maybe” or “no”, then you will be repeatedly frustrated in your business and social dealings in Korea.

4. It’s not black and white for Koreans, either!

You should know that Koreans struggle somewhat with these same frustrations themselves when another party won’t give a straight answer. However, most (but not all!) Koreans have properly developed their noonchi and eventually (usually pretty quickly, actually) reach correct conclusions about the signals and move on without getting angry about having been lied to. Likewise, you ought not take this apparent Korean evasiveness personally and should recognize it for the cultural phenomenon that it is.

Also, the flip side here is that if you’re direct with Koreans, you don’t risk being misunderstood since they won’t need any noonchi skills with you. But what about the offense you cause? When in Korea, it’s best to accommodate this Korean cultural aspect in your business and social dealings by understanding and communicating in ways that maintain the social harmony.

For additional information on the following related topics and more, click here to visit the a dedicated page on Steven’s weblog:

  • Crash Course on Korea Business Success Strategies (Lesson #7 discusses the issue of social invitations that may or may not be real invitations.)
  • Topic Central Page on Korea Business Central: Korean Business Savvy
  • Blog post: “The Korean Language is as Precise and Direct as English”
  • Online article” “Life in Korea: When a Job Offer is Something Else” (On Korea4Expats.com; an example of what happens when communications about ‘yes” and ‘no’ get all twisted up)
  • Other insights I didn’t have room to include in the article here.