- Indirect Communication: The South Korean communication pattern is generally indirect and quite verbose. They tend to rely less on words and are attentive to a speaker’s posture, expression and tone of voice to draw meaning. Speech can be ambiguous as they often understate their point. The purpose of this is to maintain harmony throughout the conversation and prevent a loss of face on either end of the exchange. The best way of navigating this rhetoric to find the underlying meaning is to check for clarification several times through open-ended questions.
- Refusals: A South Korean’s preoccupation with saving face and politeness means that they will seldom give a flat ‘no’ or negative response, even when they don’t agree with you. Therefore, focus on hints of hesitation, listening to what they say, but also paying careful attention to what they subtly imply.
- Speech Style: While they may be indirect in their communication style, South Koreans generally speak quite firmly and use less gestures and facial expressions. This can make them come across as stern. Expect them to give serious replies and retorts. They also tend to ask questions in order to discern their status in comparison to the person they are talking to. These can catch people off guard (for example: “How much do you earn?” or “How old are you?”).
- Silence: Silence is an important and purposeful tool used in Asian communication. Pausing before giving a response indicates that someone has applied appropriate thought and consideration to the question. It reflects politeness and respect.
- Laughter: Laughter is sometimes used in awkward situations. A Korean may laugh when they feel uncomfortable and not necessarily because what was said was genuinely funny.
- Smiling: As well as an expression of glee and humour, smiling can indicate that one is feeling ashamed or embarrassed in Korean culture. For example, a Korean may smile when they make a mistake.
- Physical Contact: Koreans are generally not very physically affectionate with one another. However, male friends may touch one another more than Western man, and girls may walk hand-in-hand.
- Personal Space: Personal space is not guarded very closely in Korea. People generally expect to come into contact with strangers on busy streets and tend not to worry or apologise when personal space is invaded.
- Pointing: People do not point with their index finger but rather with their entire hand.
- Beckoning: One beckons by fluttering all fingers to one’s hand with the palm facing towards the ground.
- Eye Contact: During a discussion or friendly conversation, make full eye contact with the person you are talking to. Avoid direct eye contact if you are scolded/rebuked by someone older or of a higher status than you. Some Koreans may also avoid eye contact with their superiors on a regular basis.
- Hands: Use two hands or your right hand alone to offer or receive something.
- Gestures: It is considered rude to make a fist with your hand while placing the thumb between the middle and index finger.
- Expressions: Koreans tend to some across as quite straight-faced in conversation. However, their facial expressions can immediately expose when they are angry or in disagreement.
- Sneezing: Sneezing is considered rude in Korea. It is best practise to excuse yourself from the room if you have to.