Making Friends In Korea


The Importance of Relationships

One cannot overestimate the importance of developing good relationships with work associates in Korea. To Westerners who are accustomed to an efficient and logical approach, this stress on interpersonal relationships and group harmony is excessive. Positive working relationships require time (both short and long term), money, honesty and care.

How to develop good relationships

Fortunately, most Koreans like developing good relationships with foriegners. One aspect of the Korean personality is a desire to learn from other cultures, this means that as you learn from and about them, your Korean co-workers will also be learning from and about you.

Because Koreans have a strong collectivist and in-group collectivist orienation, Koreans will take care to introduce you to the people in your work setting that you need to know and you will no doubt be taken out to eat and drink, giving you the opportunity to get to know your work associates on a personal level. These socializing experiences are an excellent opportunity for them to know you better and vice-versa. During these early social activities, your Korean work associates will be watching you carefully, trying to determine if you are of good character, flexible, sensitive to other people and willing to share yourself with them.

What to talk about

One of the best ways to begin a relationship is to look for things you have in common, such as hobbies, travel experiences, past residences and current social activities. These are ideal subjects to talk about. You can also ask questions that show an interest in Korea (and if you have some knowledge about Korea, shows this knowledge), such questions might concern places you are thinking of traveling to, food, art, music, etc. Men enjoy talking about their military experiences (nearly all men serve for two years). Women can be asked about their children.

Describing First Impressions

You will certainly be asked about your impressions of their country. Note that your answers should include only things you like about Korea until you have known someone for a long time and have a close and open relationship.

Koreans are eager to hear your opinion about anything Korean. They are very pleased to hear which foods you like, what places you have visited in Korea, how Korea favorably compares to other places you have lived, and how kind and polite Koreans are. Such statements, if sincere, are sure to increase the gibun of any Korean.


Personal Questions

You will likely be asked personal questions that may seem intrusive but the purpose is to get to know you better and to find out areas of mutual interest. While you do not have to answer questions you are uncomfortable answering, keeping all your thoughts and experiences to yourself will not be in your best interest.

In getting to know one another, Koreans will often ask quite personal questions. It is usual to ask someone if he or she is married, and if not, why not? If married, for how long? If no children, why not? Why did you get divorced?

Except for much older women, asking someone their age is not considered impolite. Questions about how much your home or watch are worth are a normal part of Korean conversations. Such questions are not intended to embarrass you. Many expatriates find that Koreans ask them more personal questions than they would ask other Koreans.

There is no obligation to answer questions if you are not so inclined. Your conversation partner's primary concern is usually that you feel comfortable. If you consider a question too personal, answer humorously and change the subject, or pretend that you didn't hear. Try not to reveal feeling offended. Koreans are sensitive to your feelings about a subject, and you would be wise to be equally sensitive to theirs. If they do not wish to discuss something, they may smile at your question and say nothing. Or they may appear uncomfortable and try to change the subject.

Men enjoy talking about their military experiences (nearly all men serve for two years). Women can be asked about their children. People who have travelled find it interesting to discuss where they have been. As most Koreans are well-read about national and international events, current news can be discussed, keeping in mind that until you know the person well, criticisms of Korea, even the Korean government, will not be well received. You can, however, freely criticize the customs or government of your own country.


Having Fun with Your Work Associates

One of the best ways to develop good relationships with Korean co-workers, bosses and subordinates is to have fun together. Activities such as hiking, tennis or visiting cultural sites are quite common for Korean workers to do together. You would be wise to participate in these events as a way to get to know your colleagues.


Being Yourself

As a foreigner, you are not expected to fully follow all of the Korean rules and your oddities may very well be celebrated as long as it is clear that you make your relationship with your co-workers a priority. Nevertheless being completely yourself may cause a certain level of discomfort to your Korean associates. Keep in mind that Koreans highly value harmony and are sensitive to one another, think twice before being potentially uncomfortably direct. Also keep in mind the importance of status and rules associated with business hierarchy, again, think twice before reprimanding someone in public or disagreeing with a manager in public.

Maintaining/Nurturing Relationships

After attending numerous dinners and parties with one's work associates, a foreigner may, in the first month, come to the conclusion that the relationships are built and one can finally have time to oneself. This would be an incorrect assumption. Work relationships need to be nurtured over the course of one's employment or the duration of a business partnership. Invitations are usually made at the last minute yet Koreans are normally able to join in. Co-workers socialize on a regular basis and rejecting these opportunities frequently reflects badly on a foreign worker. Participating in these events, on the other hand, makes you part of your work group and allows work activities to proceed smoothly. This continued relationship building will result in ever stronger and trusting business bonds.