Dec 8, 2015

Korean Culture vs.Western Culture Explained: Negotiating Contracts in Korea the Korean Way

We, often, have clients that proclaim that they can't understand the way that Koreans do things.  They complain about an inability to reason, keep promises, express opinions and give a straight answer.

Koreans have plenty of complaints about Westerners also. Koreans, often, complain that Westerners concentrate too much on details and not enough on the big picture, care about money more than friendship and focus too much on efficiency. 

The root of these issues is vastly different cultural realities.

Business Culture in Korea
Korean Business the Gangnam-Style Way

The Lewis Cultural Model does an excellent job of explaining these differences.  The Lewis Cultural Model breaks cultures into three distinct categories: Linear-Active; Multi-Active; and Reactive.

Linear-Active Cultures
Linear-Active cultures base decisions and actions on logic.  Individuals in these cultures tend to be efficient, schedule oriented, and base decisions on a plan and reason.  These individuals are often criticized for focusing too much on the task at hand and not enough on building relationships.

Germany is the epitome of a Linear-Active culture.  The United States tends to be Linear-Active with some Multi-Active characteristics, since, among other things, Americans tend to consider more of the necessity in building relationships with business partners.

Multi-Active Cultures
Multi-Active cultures tend to prioritize decision making based on feelings.  They often don't concentrate on one task at a time and switch from task to task based on feelings of urgency and joy in doing a specific task at a specific time.

Multi-Active cultures tend to strive in situations where building of relationships are important.  Multi-Active cultures tend to annoy Linear-Active individuals when the Linear-Active individuals are pressed with a deadline or efficiency is necessary for success. 

The epitome of a Multi-Active Culture is Italy. 

Reactive Cultures
Reactive cultures tend to prioritize decision making based on building group harmony.  They consider logic less important than relationships.  They often respond to issues that arise, but, rarely, plan for an issue to arise, much to the annoyance of Linear-Active cultures and most of our clients.

The epitome of a Reactive culture is Japan.  Korea is a Reactive culture with characteristics of a Multi-Active Culture, since Koreans, often, tend to care more about individual relationships and tend to express emotions after a relationship is built more than Reactive cultures. 


Linear-active Multi-active Reactive
Focus Results Relationship Harmony
Talks Half Most Little
Tasks Sequential Parallel Responsive
Plans Stepwise Outline Principles
Politeness Mostly Sometimes Always
Challenge Logical Emotional Indirect
Emotion Ignored Expressed Suppressed
Communication Written Verbal Face-to-face
Body language Restrained Open Subtle

The preceding chart was adopted from: The Lewis Culture Model

I will be following up on this issue more in the next couple of weeks. The issue has a profound impact on succeeding in business in Korea.
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Sean Hayes may be contacted at: SeanHayes@ipglegal.com.

Sean Hayes is co-chair of the Korea Practice Team at IPG Legal. He is the first non-Korean attorney to have worked for the Korean court system (Constitutional Court of Korea) and one of the first non-Koreans to be a regular member of a Korean law faculty. Sean is ranked, for Korea, as one of only two non-Korean lawyers as a Top Attorney by AsiaLaw.