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Culture and Communication

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I recently hosted an ELI (Edelman Learning Institute) session on the cultural difference between the U.S. and Korea for my colleagues in the Washington, D.C. office. It started off with an exercise of ‘Let’s Pretend’: the audience was asked to “say hello” to the person next to them, but to do so in a way that would be done across the Pacific — in the Seoul office by:

  1. Bowing
  2. Addressing each other by title, instead of first names
  3. Adding an honorific address if that person holds higher position than you do
  4. Being mindful of casual language if a person is (presumably) older than you are

What followed, as was expected, was a bit of chaos and confusion as many did not know the exact titles (not to mention ages) of the colleagues in the room. For those from a relatively egalitarian culture, recognizing the significant role of hierarchy in Asia can be the first piece of the puzzle in understanding the different corporate culture and how it affects the way people communicate.

The sensitivity around title and age

Partly due to the influence of Confucianism, Koreans pay close attention to title and age, and also the relationship between the two.

Cultural Communicatsion

How does this affect the way we communicate?

In the book Korean Business Etiquette by Boye Lafayette De Mente, it is said that the Korean language is designed to reveal and maintain the social status of speakers. The author says that because Koreans have become so sensitized to language, it is important for people to use humble and modest expressions to avoid offending anyone. Perhaps this could explain why people from cultures that value straightforward communications feel that Asians “beat around the bush” or “don’t get to the point.”

The importance of humility is also not overlooked in corporate communications. When confronted with a controversial issue, companies often choose a very humble and apologetic tone for ‘making noise’ to show empathy to its audience and then go forward to make a clear statement of its position.

This was Part One of my class. Any questions? This is a small piece of a vast and multi-faceted topic, and there are various and sometimes contrasting perspectives on the matter. While challenging, navigating the two distinctly different cultures has been an exciting ride. I look forward to further enhancing my cultural intelligence in the future.

Alicia Kim is a Daniel J. Edelman Fellow from Edelman’s Seoul office, who is working in Washington D.C. You can follow her @Aliciakys.

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