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Language of Business

Language of Business

English is the common language of business in Korea. That said, the reality is that communication in English can be very challenging. Although most Koreans have studied English since middle school, many may have had little practice using the language, especially when it comes to verbal communication. That said, the level of English fluency among Koreans has greatly improved and it is not unusual to meet people, in business and other spheres, who are totally fluent.  The following applies more to people who may be less fluent.

Often, Koreans may not let on that they have not understood and in fact, will frequently act as though they have (to save their own face but also to save yours). Moreover, some are able to speak relatively fluently those phrases they have learned that one can be deceived into thinking they understand much more than they actually do. You can help reduce miscommunications by:

  1. Speaking patiently and slowly (no need to speak particularly loudly, though)
  2. Avoid using the ‘or’ structure. Break things down to a question that require a yes or no answer.
  3. Avoid tag questions since Koreans will reply to the questioner and not the questions. For example: Q. You don’t like cold weather do you? Western Answer: No, I don’t. I prefer summer.   Korean Answer: Yes.
  4. Use simple short words if possible
  5. If you are speaking to more than one person, give them time to translate and/or explain to each other what you are saying.
  6. Repeat key points several times, rephrasing a little if possible.
  7. Write key points if you can since most Koreans read English quite well.
  8. Find a diplomatic way to have the person repeat/paraphrase what you’ve been saying.9.       Learning some Korean – especially key words that you would use in your business. No need to become fluent, but key words and phrases can only help you do business more effectively and easily.
  9. Learn to figure out the Korean ‘yes’ which is more likely to mean “I understand” or “I’ll try and do my best” as opposed to the Western “I agree” or “I’ll do it”.
  10.  Deciphering the Korean “No” is equally important but challenging. In traditional Korean culture it is impolite to say “No” directly. So, instead of doing so, many Korean will find an indirect way of doing so. For example, they may impose conditions that make the deal impossible for the other party to accept. Rather than reject an invitation, they many keep putting it off, which is an indirect “no” or they may simply not show up, expecting that you would have understood that they never intended to come. Sometimes, you’ll discover that something a Korean has agreed to do has not been done. His original intention was likely not to deceive you, but when he agreed, he couldn’t say “No”, so his “Yes” meant “If it is possible, I’ll do it”.  

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Last Updated on 2016-02-05

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