Three Discussion Topics That Will Interest the Koreans You Meet on Business
Talk Up the Positives and Learn New Perspectives
By KBC Creator Steven S. Bammel
From the Korea Business Advisor column in the November 2011 issue of Seoul Magazine.
Business in Korea is about more than the terms of your contract; to be successful over the long run, you should make the effort to establish rapport and build strong relationships. Such bonding is often achieved while eating out at restaurants or during the hours in a car or train on the way to and from the factory.
These out-of-the-office times are extremely valuable opportunities to connect with your Korean counterparts and one of the best ways of doing this is to learn from them about how they see the world. The following suggestions can give you a jumping off point for fruitful and interesting discussions
1. Koreans are proud of their achievements over the last fifty years, and ashamed of a lot that came before that.
The Korean economic miracle of the past 50 years is no secret; what makes it more poignant though is how it contrasts with the previous century, during which time Korea saw the collapse of its social order into colonization, civil war and dependency. This night-to-day transformation introduces fascinating currents of thought into the Korea of today, and you can expect Koreans to be eager to talk about the recent developments in their country.
However, such evident pride is offset by a remarkable indifference (at least around foreigners) with which Koreans view the first half of the 20th century, except when discussing how bad the Japanese were. When talking with Koreans, you’ll find your most fruitful and enjoyable topics in the post-1960 era.
But keep this in mind too… Koreans may talk a lot about how they are one race and one language; but they are far from unanimous in interpreting the root causes of their modern success and there’s no point in starting a quarrel over whether oppressive government policies lead to economic success, or whether democracy came too late, or too early, to the country.
And if you’re worried Koreans haven’t noticed the negatives, please relax. Koreans are adequately aware of and concerned about issues like corruption, class inequity, bad driving habits and pollution; they don’t need to hear about it from you. In fact, the Korean newspapers slam such issues on a daily basis even if these topics don’t always make it into the English-language media. In other words, leave these sensitive matters to Koreans to deal with amongst themselves.
2. Koreans enjoy sharing about their long history and culture.
While the early years of the 20th century are full of bad memories for Koreans, the centuries before that generate a certain degree of historic nostalgia. In particular, there’s a perceived sense that modern life has lost a lot of the depth and meaning of the past. Thus, traditional Korean foods are extolled (almost at every meal, it seems!) for their health benefits and old Korean sayings are applied to modern situations. Make it a point to ask about the food when going out to eat.
Furthermore, a phenomenon that has really taken hold over the last ten years is the popularity of the Korean Wave, also known as “Hallyu”. While this comes as a surprise to many Westerners, it just so happens that Korea’s become the center of popular culture throughout East and Southeast Asia today thanks to the Korean Wave. This is a source of a great deal of pride for Koreans and something you can ask your Korean counterparts about if you’d like to know more.
3. Koreans are fascinated by their place in the world.
Historically, Korea has remained in the backwaters of the international mainstream and has been often threatened by geopolitical forces out of its control. There’s a perception in Korea that the country is small (physically, this is true, but is now false when measured in terms of population and economic size) and unable to drive its own destiny, but this perspective is changing.
With the recent success of Korea on many international stages, including business, sports, entertainment and diplomacy, Koreans are basking in the glow of newfound recognition and exploring the many implications of this. One recent phenomenon is the rapid increase in the number of non-Koreans living in Korea, especially those married to Koreans, and multiculturalism is a buzzword in Korea today. You’ll find that Koreans are keen to talk about those topics which help to define their position in relation to other countries and cultures.