Cultural differences in workplaces…

I was up early this morning using the web to research a topic when I happened to find this Korean article advising Korean workers how to understand the style of their Americans and Europeans  co-workers.   I met a Korean workplace bullying expert/researcher while I was filming at the 2008 International Conference on Workplace Bullying & Harassment.  She said that they were having difficulty developing a way to gauge harassment because the cultural differences were so great.  This article gives some insight into what she meant… 

Understanding cultural difference at workplaces

By Jung Bong-soo

More and more foreign companies have been establishing branches in Korea since the country concluded free trade agreements (FTA) with the European Union and the United States.

Domestic companies have been hiring more foreign professionals in an effort to enhance their competitiveness in the markets of advanced nations. It is common for disagreements or misunderstanding to arise between Koreans and foreign employees due to differences in culture, occupational habits and language.

It is difficult for Koreans to understand their foreign counterparts if they do not know the cultural characteristics that have formed over long periods of time. Of course the lack of understanding may lead to an atmosphere that is not conducive to business. I would like to deal with some cultural differences and the opinions of some foreigners living and working in Korea.

English does not have such strict rules regarding politeness, and emotional authority between positions and ages is not as high as in Korea. In the Power Distance Index, which indicates the degree of authority people in higher social positions have over those in lower positions, Korea places among the highest, while the U.S. places among the lowest. The superior talks down to the subordinate while the subordinate talks in higher forms of the language to the superior. For example, using the lowest form of language includes orders “you will do this”; talking in low form would be “do this”; talking in high form would be “please do this”; talking in the highest form would be “would you please do this?” Under such a strict vertical hierarchy and the required forms of expression, a subordinate cannot simply point out his superior’s mistakes, but must speak indirectly in a way that does not offend the superior.

In Korea, addressing someone by their title or position is important. People at work call each other by their job positions, while Westerners use first names, or Mr., Mrs., or Ms., plus family names for respect. In Western culture, position titles only indicate persons-in-charge, and are not used when addressing that person. Mr. or Mrs. is acceptable regardless of someone’s position, with first names used once two people are on friendly terms. In Korea, title indicates status, so if someone is addressed in a way that is not suitable for his age or position, he or she may be offended and feel they are being talked to as an inferior. Sales employees introduce themselves using a title that is higher than their own, to give themselves authority in the eyes of customers.

In Western culture, people can be friends with whomever they want, while in Korea you can only call someone your friend if he or she is the same age as you. In Western culture, people keep in mind the age difference and give respect where it is due, but nevertheless they are free to befriend anyone they please.

In the Korean work environment, to be in a higher position than someone older than you is difficult because age is very important. To be young and in a higher position than someone older puts you in a predicament because you are not able to conduct yourself as that person’s senior as they may think there’s nothing to learn from you or you have no authority to lead them because you are younger. In western cultures, positions in the workplace are more respected than here.

Here are examples of cultural differences related to behavior that I collected from expatriates living and working in Korea.

In Korea it is polite to decline something that is offered to you and maybe on the second or third time it is offered you accept it. In Western culture if something is offered to you and you want it you can gladly accept it the first time it is offered.

Also in Western culture, the use of “thank you” is much more common than in Korean culture. It is quite common for friends, spouses, and family members in Korea not to say thank you to each other for little gifts, for giving someone something they requested, whereas this would be quite rude in Western culture. We even say “thank you” to the salesperson at a store when we buy something, for giving us our change.

If Koreans know you, then they’re extremely kind and helpful but if they don’t know you they ignore you like you don’t exist. In Western culture people are relatively friendly even if they don’t know each other: for example they’ll greet and start a conversation.

Saying “OK, OK, OK” or “Yeah, yeah, yeah” in English can be extremely rude. In Korea, it just means “I really understand or “Yes, right away.” In English it means “OK, shut up. I don’t want to hear what you are saying.”

The cultural differences between Korea and the West are very wide, go very deep, and reach into a huge variety of situations. If employees are unable to come to a cultural understanding of these differences, even in this global era, then Koreans and expatriates working together will have to settle for a relationship of “close in proximity, but distant in relationship.”

When cultural differences are allowed, accepted and understood, employees can work better, more constructively, and in greater cooperation. With a partnership based on this acceptance, Korean employees can work well with foreign expatriates, improve their own work efficiency and help the company increase its competitiveness with leading companies from around the world.

Jung Bong-soo is a labor attorney at KangNam Labor Law Firm in Seoul. Contact him at

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