In a country which put so much emphasis on seniority and hierarchy, the way business professionals addressing each other might be confusing for a foreigner visiting Korea. I’d love to share a few tips not only to avoid an awkward situation but also to leave a good impression in a meeting.
Have you ever seen a scene from K-drama with people in suits and ties, calling one another with similar names like KIM Sajang or LEE Sajang? It surprisingly holds true regardless of the size, mission or people of a company. I witnessed it while working in six different types of organisation; from boutique consulting agency to association for conglomerates, the spectrum of working culture was varied as wide as the legal structures except for the appellation. I learned the business code of conduct by observing how experienced professionals interact in certain ways, often unwritten in any manual for a new comer. Looking back on my experiences as I am now based in Europe, I can tell how significant a title means in such hierarchical society.
Certainly identifying seniors or people in charge is important in any country, but the conspicuously Korean part may be the way of addressing each other. You’ll meet not Christ Kim or Jane Lee but KIM Sajang-nim (CEO Kim) or LEE Bujang-nim (Team Leader Lee) with honorific nim at the end. The title or the rank kind of becomes one’s official name like a social identity until s/he gets promoted to renew it with a new rank. When my counterpart in a partner company got promoted from PARK Daeri-nim (associate) to PARK Gwajang-nim (manager), I had to pay extra attention to the changed title for a while. Because it would be a mistake to call him with the old lower rank. The first name is almost discarded in the business world, having its trace only on official documents but is rarely called out. By now you already notice the pattern. The polite way to address a business partner is calling one’s surname with position title, e.g. KIM Gwajang-nim (manager Kim). Addressing illustrates how hierarchy and one’s position on the organisational ladder play a dominant role in Korean business etiquette.
Yet, this could be a bit tricky since the top 3 family names, Kim, Lee and Park, take up nearly half of the whole Korean population.* One in five Koreans has Kim as one’s surname. It is not surprising, then, there could be several KIM Gwajang-nim in one team. Many startups and a few big firms in creative sectors try to lessen the stiffness in hierarchy while decreasing the confusion by addressing differently. It could be calling everyone in first name without title or in English nicknames. For example, I could address everyone including the managing director by ‘first name + nim’ after moving to a startup with less than 5 colleagues. I also heard that at Kakao Corp., one of the largest IT giants in Korea, employees call each other with English names without any title.
There is definitely a rising movement to change the way to address each other at work, but it is still regarded as polite to properly call one’s rank accordingly. Just don’t forget to check your counterpart’s surname on the business card. The next post will be dedicated to this piece of paper, a symbol of social identity in Korea.
My small tips to help you shine on the first encounter in a business meeting in Korea can be summarised as: