Working and Business > Key Values & Norms

Kibun, Nunchi, Inwha, Harmony

Kibun, Nunchi, Inwha, Harmony

Even though they are evolving (as is the case with many other norms and values in today's Korea), the  following cultural values/norms are fundamental to Korean culture.

Harmony in personal relationships is a dominant force in a Korean’s life. Facts, logic and conclusions are often not nearly as important as how one is looked upon by others. Friendships are tight-knit and valuable. It is an insult to refuse a friend’s request. It is even less forgivable to fail a superior. These friendships are possible because everyone does his or her best to preserve and foster harmony and good feelings. The bearer of bad news may smile to soften the blow. S/he may avoid giving the news, even if s/he is merely the messenger and in no way responsible for it.

 It is very hard for Koreans to admit failure and it is devastating to lose face in Korean culture. The directness of Westerners is thoroughly unpalatable to many Koreans (especially older and/or more traditional people), whose self-esteem is often on the line. In Korea, it is of unparalleled importance to maintain kibun or the mood or feeling of being in a comfortable state of mind.

 Kibun – The word kibun has no literal translation in English. However, as a concept that permeates every facet of Korean life, it can be described in terms of pride, face, mood, or state of mind. In order to maintain a Korean’s sense of Kibun, particularly in a business context, one must show the proper respect and avoid causing loss of face. In a culture where social harmony is essential, the ability to identify another’s state of mind, often referred to as nunchi, is crucial to successful business ventures. For this reason, you must be aware of subtleties in communication, observing non-verbal and indirect cues that often suggest the true sense of what is being communicated.  

In Korea, breakage of machinery, a production line error or bad news from the head office may not be as important as the reporting of the news, which will cause loss of face for the teller and damaged kibun for the hearer. Bad news is rarely related in the first hour of the business day. If a bad report is inescapable, the evening is a better time to deliver it, when there is at least a night in which to restore kibun

Consider the question of public reputation. The great importance placed on kibun can mean that it is more important to exhibit the external signals of politeness than other moral values, such as speaking the truth. A Westerner who knows that he is being lied to is apt to feel greatly offended by the  'perceived' rudeness of a Korean (or anyone else) who places kibun above honesty. That is, s/he feels that s/he is being treated as a fool. Meanwhile the Korean may feel that s/he is graciously lying to preserve the kibun of the 'foreigner'.   

More examples:
1. If you are a teacher, you may have students who treat you with great politeness, bowing to you when or leaving entering you class or even when meeting you on the street. However, these same students may answer their cell phone in your class, arrive late and unprepared or even with clearly plagiarised work, which are all signs of disrespect. to many non-Korean professors.
2. Your employer is more likely to fire you on Friday and tell you that you need not come back. In this way, you have saved faced by not having to return and face your failure. That the firing comes out of the blue, may be an indication that you did not pick up on subtle, non-verbal clues (nunchi).

Nunchi refers to a concept in Korean culture that involves listening and gauging the other person’s mood – often without the help of clear (to foreign nationals) signals.  It is of central importance to the dynamics of interpersonal relationships. The literal translation of nunch is "eye-measure". With nunchi, Koreans are usuing non-verbal cues to convey emotion and meaning through various means, including voice pitch and volume as well as intonation. Nunchi  also relies heavily on an understanding of one's status relative to the person with whom one is interacting. Because Korea, as with other high-context cultures caters toward in-groups that have similar experiences and expectations and from which inferences are drawn, many things are left unsaid here. The culture does the explaining, in effect.   

Both Kibun and Nunchi are very difficult concepts for non-Koreans to get the hang of and we will generally be forgiven for our ignorance of these concepts and consequent rude behaviour, especailly if we are high on the status ladder. However, one gains more than one loses by trying to understand and, as much as possible, behaving according to these rules of behaviour.  

Inhwa – Drawing from Confucian beliefs, the term inhwa signifies the Korean approach to harmony. As a collectivist society, consensus is an important element in promoting and maintaining harmony in Korea. To avoid disturbing inhwa, Koreans will often reply with a positive answer and show reluctance to give direct refusals. In Korean business culture, this manifests itself in an innate sense of loyalty, employee obedience and courteous and formal behaviour.

Confucianism - Confucianism continues to pervade the consciousness of many Koreans, shaping the Korean moral system, its national laws, and general way of life in Korea, including its business culture. The Korean values of obligation towards others, respect for family, elders and authority, loyalty, honour, and filial piety are all part of its Confucian. Although it is not seen as a religion in this increasingly Christian society, and although it is no longer part of the ‘public’ school curriculum, Confucianism still plays an important role in Korean society. Confucian ideas and ideals such as chung / loyalty; hyo / ofilial piety; in / benevolence, and sin / trust are still part of the cultural fabric and strong elements of Confucianist thought still exist in day-to-day administrative and organisational hierarchies.

Personal Relationships - In Korea, personal relations frequently take precedence over business. In order to be successful, it is vital to establish good, personal relationships based on mutual trust and benefit. Korean business culture is firmly grounded in respectful rapport and in order to establish this, it is essential that you have the right introduction and approach the company, often through a mutual friend or acquaintance at the appropriate level. Koreans spend a significant amount of time developing and fostering personal contacts. Therefore, time should be allocated for this process, particularly during the first meeting, which is frequently used to simply establish rapport and build trust. Once good, solid relations have been recognised in Korea, continuous reinforcement and maintenance is vital. One of the modern ways of developing mutual trust and cementing a personnel relationship is the practice of getting closer through alcohol. However, there is growing recognition in Korean society that getting drunk for business reasons may not really be good for business and younger, health conscious workers are opting for alternative ways of bonding when they can. A traditional practice of 'gift-giving' is also being addressed in many sectors as anti-corruptions practices and policies are increasingly being implemented.

Over and above, culturally specific concepts such as kibun and nunchi, following are a few other non-verbal indicators you may want to keep in mind:

How you dress - This sends a message, so it is important that the clothes you wear reflect your status and also that of the person with whom you are doing business. If you are a man, you should wear a tie and a suit jacket when outside the office.
When a Korean smiles - Smiling can be an expression of happiness, but it can also express shame or embarrassment. If your assistant has made a serious mistake, s/he may smile or even laugh. Don’t get upset by this reaction. It’s not because s/he find the situation amusing, on the contrary. Let the context help you interpret the smile and/or laugh.
Koreans often speak very loudly - This frequently occurs when talking on the telephone. Should you be having a business conversation over the phone with someone who sounds as though s/he is shouting, don’t take it to be an expression of anger or frustration on the caller’s part.
Telephone conversations sometimes end - In what might appear to a Westerner as an abrupt manner, Koreans (those not used to communicating with 'foreigners') often hang up when they have finished saying what they wanted to say. The practice of saying "goodbye" does not always apply in Korea.

Gender Note: The Korean business world is still, in the beginning of the 21st century, male-centered and male-dominated. However, women are beginning to gain some inroads, but the glass ceiling here is very low still. This reality does present some special challenges to foreign women who come here to work.

K4E Editor: tries to ensure that the information we provide is accurate and complete, so should you notice any errors or omissions in the content above please contact us at

Last Updated on 2012-08-21

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