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The Expatriate Manager in South Korea,

Cross Cultural Communication

by Sonya Scholes, Troy State University 2003

The purpose of this paper is to illustrate the importance of training and education in global organizations for expatriate managers to minimize culture shock and maximize the manager’s effectiveness and efficiency working in a different culture. Geert Hofstede’s Model of National Culture will be used to illustrate the dimensions of South Korean culture with suggested implications for the expatriate manager based in South Korea. A brief overview of current practices by four global organizations is followed by suggestions for improving cross cultural training and education.



Globalization is not a new concept. As far back as the ancient Egyptian civilization, trading with foreign nations for either rare or unavailable goods in the local environ was an astute business practice. The time line has meandered from the Agrarian to the Industrial and catapulted into the Information Age where communication and travel have facilitated the amount and frequency of organizations operating and competing in more than one country. Global organizations need to be aware of forces that will affect businesses abroad e.g. political, legal, economic and sociocultural. Organizations such as ASEM (Asia-Europe Meeting), WTO (World Trade Organization ), APEC ( Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation ) and NAFTA ( North American Free Trade Agreement) have been set up to facilitate and educate about trading globally.

However, when two or more cultures meet to conduct business each representative needs to be well informed about the social mores, folkways and values of the business partner prior to any face-to-face meeting. Cohen (1980. p.95) illustrated this point in his book, ‘You Can Negotiate Anything” where his superiors referred to his first international business transaction in Tokyo as “The first great Japanese victory since Pearl Harbor”. Cohen had thought that he had been prepared for cultural differences by reading books on Japanese mentality and psychology. If his company had provided better training for him on the norms and values of the Japanese then he would not refer to the incident as a “debacle” and his company would have been more efficient and effective resulting in the competitive advantage they had originally envisioned.

South Korea has undergone massive development in the last 30 years, leapfrogging the Industrial Age from a largely agrarian society to the Information Age. Faced with such dynamic changes South Korea has entered the global business forum with gusto. On January 1, 1995 it
became a member of the World Trade Organization and it is a founder member of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation. At the end of 2001, foreign investors owned 37% of the total market value of South Korean companies on the Kospi stock exchange. Globalization and inter-cultural exchanges play an important part in South Korean business practices.

Geert Hofstede, a psychologist, collected data between 1967 and 1973 within IBM subsidiaries in 66 countries on cultural differences. McSweeney (2002) contended that the figure of 117,000 questionnaires was too low for reliable findings, however, it is not the purpose of the paper to dispute McSweeney’s evaluations, but to use Hofstede’s Model of National Culture as a guide to illustrate the uniqueness of South Korean business and national culture.

Culture is defined by Hofstede as, “The collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one group from another.” Hofstede’s “mental programming” is referring to the mores, values and folkways which are approved by and affect how citizen’s should act in a particular society. Values, mores and folkways are learnt mostly unconsciously by inhabitants through socialization. In this way the behaviors and responses within a culture become predictable. In order for an expatriate to do business successfully he must be aware of the differences between his own and his foreign partner’s culture. Hofstede developed a model which initially identified four primary dimensions to differentiate cultures; after working with Chinese employees and managers he later added a fifth dimension which was originally termed

Confucianism, and later changed to Long/Short Term Orientation. The data Hofstede collected was gathered over 20 years ago. Cultures do change and develop over time e.g. The reuniting of East and West Germany after the collapsing of the Iron Curtain in 1989 was a catalyst of change
for the former communist state from a value system that emphasized Collectivism to a higher orientation towards the Individualism of Western Germany.

South Korea has developed significantly in the last 20years, opening up its doors to such highly publicized events such as hosting the Olympic Games and the Soccer World Cup Finals. These two events alone have raised general awareness of other cultures and values.

Below is a table to illustrate Hofstede’s cultural dimension scores for South
Korea and the United States. It is taken from a table of 58 countries’ findings as displayed here. A brief overview of the table indicates that the scores for South Korea and the United States stand on opposite sides of the scale, indicating a marked difference in cultural values. Add to this the differences in language and alphabet, Koreans use Hangul, a unique writing system used only in Korea, and the differences are adding up, lending further complications for the expatriate manager.

South Korea
United States

PDI = Power Distance
IDV = Individualism vs. Collectivism
MAS = Masculinity (Assertiveness), Femininity (Nurturing)
UAI = Uncertainty Avoidance
LTO = Long Term Orientation


According to Hofstede, South Korea and the United States are diametrically opposed on his individualism and collectivism scale. Individual freedom and self-expression are valued in the United States. In the more egalitarian society individuals are judged more by their own achievements, not those of the group, social status and connections.

In stark contrast to the United States, South Koreans are more comfortable in groups, a collectivist society. “Confucianism, one of the major historical factors leading East Asian people to the path of the spiritual world, contributed enormously to the development of Korean society and culture” (Lee, Jeong-Kyu, 2001, para 1, introduction ). Lee proposes that the strong group ties are becoming divisive and also affecting progress within the higher educational institutions, and hence the progress of the nation. The individual’s desires are subordinated for the goals of the group. ”Oo-ri-na” the Korean word for country, actually translates as “our country”. The larger the group, the more that comfort is felt.

The expatriate manager would work towards his organization’s goals more effectively if the organization prepared him by pointing out some of the implications in this cultural dimension difference:

1. Typically it is difficult to speak to the boss because of the group responsibility and the person designated as the front person is usually an extension of the group and cannot act alone. Being aware of this may prevent frustrations from the expatriate manager. He can take proactive steps towards ensuring that he deals with the group holding the desired authority for his purpose


2. “Songsil” is a term used to show that all employees should be willing to sacrifice personal interest to those of the company. Pat Cerra, Executive Director Supply Chain and Industrial Operations, of Bayer Cropscience based in Seoul, has found that additional emphasis must be placed in showing commitment to the company via extended presence at the expense of personal time.


3. According to Kim, (2000 p. 5) “In-group members would not ignore the suffering of fellow members. The in-group members generously overlook the mistakes of other members.” The implications for an expatriate manager are that if the loyalty and bonding within sub groups is so immensely powerful then as an outsider of the sub group he may be denied knowledge of “mistakes.”


4. Kim goes on to say that to bond as a group, individuals will share experiences together, creating a “virtually unbreakable bond” for “the rest of their lives”. An expatriate manager would need to be aware that an introduction to possible business contacts may not be made on performance based criteria but social obligation. Alternatively, to be able to forge the bonds may be beneficial for the expatriate manager, and to make a proactive approach towards this goal may help achieve the wider goal of gaining competitive advantage.

Higher Power Distance
“ The single most important factor that contributes towards the patterns of interpersonal relationships is the Principle of the Five Human Relationships, which is attributed to Confucius.” And that it, “emphasizes hierarchical order in interpersonal relationships” (Kim, 2000 p). The higher power distance allows for strict stratifications in the society. The differences between the layers are accepted as the norm, ritual being a tool for reinforcement, and inequalities taken for granted. Implications for the expatriate manager are:

1. Employees will rely on instructions from superiors and may not feel comfortable working autonomously on projects.


2. Privilege is taken for granted. When there is no need for individuals to justify rank and power through performance, a possibility opens up that the person with the privileges may not necessarily be the best equipped to perform.


3. Employees of differing status may feel uncomfortable when mixing. When the expatriate manager needs information from a subordinate, he may receive the answer that he wants, but not the de facto truth.


4. The expatriate manager may have a meeting with a colleague of the same caliber, but this person may not be the best equipped to fulfill his requests.


5. Movement and communication between the hierarchical levels is limited and not encouraged. Promoting bright young individuals may be problematic.

Long Term Orientation
Hofstede added Long Term Orientation to his four original cultural dimensions after conducting research in China. The teachings of Confucius had not been relevant until he visited Asia where the Confucian doctrine was firmly embedded in the culture. The short term “make a quick buck and exit” philosophy of the United States of America can create misunderstandings and bafflement when East meets West around the negotiating table and in the workplace. Cohen, (1980, p. 95/96) described the massive implications that the clash of Long and Short Term orientations had on the Paris United States/Vietnam Peace Talks. The US representative, Averell Harriman “rented a room on a week to week basis at the Ritz Hotel at the Place Vendome in the center of the city”. The North Vietnamese “eventually rented a villa on the outside of Paris on a two and a half year lease”. The subtle ploy at the start of the negotiations unnerved the US, unaccustomed to such a lengthy process. In the world of business where time is money, being prepared for the difference in the perception of time is good preparation for the expatriate manager.


Possible implications of Long Term orientation are:

1. All negotiations will take longer than those held between two Short Term Oriented organizations.


2. Strategies will reflect long term profits and growth, and that there is general acceptance that goals will be achieved at a much slower rate.


3. The Long term oriented organization members may spend longer on establishing a relationship prior to actually conducting business.


4. Security of investment has a higher priority than making a short term profit.

Nurturing Orientation

Kim, (2000 p. 5 ) places South Korea towards the Nurturing end of the scale of National Culture more than being Assertive like the United States. Hofstede categorized cultures into those that value personal relationships and quality of life (Nurturing) and cultures that place more emphasis on Achievement Orientation ie. value assertiveness, competition, results and performance. In his recent ideas and reflections Hofstede (February 2003) talked about the excessive use of the word “I” in mainstream America in contrast to his native Holland, a more nurturing national culture. “ Stressing the “I” is encouraged in mainstream U.S. culture. Women who are too modest are sent to assertiveness training, and some marketers encourage selling the brand ‘me’. “ He states that English is the only language that he knows that, “writes the pronoun “I” with a capital letter”. One of the issues that Diana Kang mentioned in her interview concerning her PR company, Idea Consultations, was that of the Korean businesses needing help and direction in the area of promoting their organizations. The modesty of the Koreans did not allow for the trumpet blowing of self promotion. She went on to say that the customers abroad were not impressed by a letter head, but needed promotional advertising directed at the local culture. The implications for the expatriate manager could be:

1. In the more Nurturing Oriented culture, ultimatums, displays of frustration and anger would be frowned on and the concept of “losing face” would greatly hamper any progress. The expatriate manager would benefit from training in the art of compromise to settle disputes and differences.


2. The work ethic is culturally strong, theory Y being more applicable. There would be no place for using organization time to conduct private business.


3. The Korean business man would not necessarily be overly impressed with an all singing and all dancing self promotional speech; a more reserved and modest approach would endear him to the sensibilities of the Korean host, paving the way for a good basis for the conduct of business.

High Uncertainty Avoidance
Hofstede ranked South Korea quite highly on his Uncertainty Avoidance scale of cultural dimensions. The risk taking factor is low when there is the possibility of uncertainty and the outcome is not predictable or familiar. It may seem a direct contrast to the indigenous gambling ethic, but in these circumstances the odds are known and the risk is always calculated. Within cultures where there is a high Uncertainty Avoidance there is a strong reliance on laws and rules. Criticism of experts and authorities is minimal, so the acceptance of the status quo is embraced. Job security is a high priority, and the larger the organization the more the faith in security. It is this facet that has undoubtedly contributed to the Korean form of organization known as the ”chaebol”. Examples of chaebol are Hyundai, Samsung, Daewoo and Lucky Goldstar. They are super conglomerates that have government backing and privileges, employing over half a million South Koreans and controlling the jobs of millions. The expatriate manager aware of the High Uncertainty Avoidance may adapt strategy in the following ways:

1. In order to lower the uncertainty of new encounters with representatives of different cultures South Koreans may seem to be more inquisitive about personal lives, so sharing of personal information could be beneficial.


2. In wanting to know and exchange details, the handing over of business cards has a strong importance. At a glance, the name, position, and status are clear. The business card exchange is almost ceremonial and has a deep significance; it would not be a good idea for the expatriate manager to crush, write on or simply forget to take the card of the Korean manager.


3. The expatriate manager can develop the feeling of security for his South Korean partners by having contacts or a third party for introductions or to set up meetings.


4. New ideas and innovations enthusiastically received in High Risk cultures need time and subtlety to be introduced into the High Uncertainty Avoidance culture.


5. The expatriate manager would need to employ a more subtle approach over a longer time in order to achieve his goals. Koreans have been termed “ subtle and effective negotiators” (International Business Resource Connection). The expatriate employee would do well to have been trained by his organization in the art of subtle negotiation.

Hofstede's’s Model of National Culture is undoubtedly helpful in giving a broad understanding of general culture in the case of South Korea for American Expatriates. An understanding of the results of Hofstede’s surveys and the implications in business practices would further the integration of the global organization into the local culture and help towards gaining a competitive advantage.

In Seoul, South Korea the Seoul Hilton is part of the global organization Hilton Hotels International. On March 27, 2003 the chain won, “best of the brand” at the annual Hotel Awards Ceremony. The hotel chain must be producing effective initiation and education of the different cultures globally to its executive staff in order to achieve such high standards. The General Managers in the hotel chain are accustomed to working in and adapting to different cultures, spending on average three years in a location. The English GM of the Seoul Hilton inducts his new executive staff personally as to the values, mores and folkways of the South Korean culture. The Hilton has a strong organization culture, which is part of new staff training, which entails training the South Korean staff employed by the hotel. According to Hofstede, “Organization cultures are somewhat manageable while national cultures are given facts for management; common organization cultures across borders are what holds multinationals together” (Hofstede, 2003, p 1). The implication of this is that the dissemination of the organization culture is a priority of the global organization and that the expatriate managers learn on-the-job about the local culture as and when the need arises.

Bos International is a company that has grown globally more recently than Hilton International. The Canadian-German founder of the South Korean operations represented his company as a solo individual with no prior introductions. Through informal and formal contacts he has been able to establish a multimillion euro business in South Korea. Knowledge of the local culture was learnt by on-the-job contacts with the hired South Korean employees. Transformational managers are charismatic leaders. In utilizing personal qualities and abilities the manager could enthusiastically communicate the long term vision to his employees, in informal exchange of their expertise of the local culture to help his company achieve a competitive advantage.

Bayer Cropscience is a global organization. At present the Australian EO has worked extensively with other cultures globally, is accustomed to adapting to local cultures, sometimes at short notice. Again, personal education and research has been the order of the day.

Daimler Chrysler offers its expatriate managers a comprehensive package managed by the H.R. department. Employees have access to the following:

1. Three week’s language and culture training at headquarters prior to taking up a senior management position in Seoul, South Korea;

2. A week’s preliminary visit for the whole family to find accommodation, schools, familiarization and handover of the place of work.

3. Dependents are given a package containing helpful information prior to settling in. This contains websites, books on Korean cookery, novels set in historical and contemporary Korea, children’s coloring books on a Korean theme, videos a and DVD’s on facets of Korean traditions, maps and travel books on Korea.

4. A local national on call for the first month for any help that may be needed.

Concluding remarks
Geert Hofstede’s Model of National Culture still remains a good general guideline for understanding a national culture. Research of relevant articles and papers allows for implications to be drawn from Hofstede’s dimensions for the expatriate manager.

The brief overview suggests that the successful managers in the organizations have good people skills, practice boundary spanning and perform to high levels, whether the inter-cultural training and education has been available or not. With increased globalization, organization cultures are traveling across language and culture boundaries.“Organization cultures are somewhat manageable while national cultures are a given fact” (Hofstede, 2003).

The building blocks of competitive advantage are efficiency, innovation, quality, responsiveness to customers, flexibility and speed. In global organizations the expatriate manager must be aware of local culture in order to gain a competitive advantage. Speed can be achieved if the global organization allocates resources to induct its expatriate managers prior to

leaving for South Korea. When a manager is accompanied with the family, the global organization needs to include them in culture training to prevent culture shock. Employees are valuable assets in every organization. As the brief overview of current practices indicates, there are some highly talented and skilled expatriate managers in South Korea who are achieving goals
for their organizations, managers who value the knowledge of the local culture and focus energies and scant leisure time on preparing themselves for working in the local culture. The process could be far more efficient when the organization’s HR department allocates resources and time towards preparing the individuals prior to arriving in country.


If the organization can train expatriate managers both formally and informally it may work more efficiently and be able to respond to the local customers needs more effectively.

Education and training prior to taking up an expatriate post would speed up the process. The dependents of the expatriate manager need to be part of the equation. To be prepared for new different experiences the dependents need to be well informed, given support and mental programming to deal with the unexpected. The United States military has a long history and much experience of posting personnel and dependents in foreign lands. It has a sponsor program for new arrivals. The sponsors have been in the duty station for a while and take on the role of mentor prior, during and after arrival. The system is ad hoc, as is human nature, but when performed effectively is very productive.

In addition to a contact in post prior to the appointment, formal language and culture classes could be made available. The quality of instruction depends on the quality of the teacher ie. a knowledgeable authority on the subject, with an unbiased, yet positive viewpoint. The knowledgeable authority should use a variety of methods of instruction and use a variety of media in presentation of the main teaching points ie. Experiential formal chalk and talk. Hofstede's’s Model of National Culture could be used as a basis for comparison between home base and expatriate venue, with its implications as a major learning objective. There are many web sites available on the internet, which the HR department could research, catalogue and print out for the family prior to departure. The settling in package provided by the fourth organization mentioned helps to initiate interest and develop understanding.

Once in country the organization could outsource an authority on local culture to be available for advice and further development of intercultural understanding. Diana Kang, Managing Director of Idea Consultations, is working to help Korean organizations prepare for the global market. She talked about the diffidence and collectivism embedded in her local culture hampering Korean PR and Marketing globally.

The knowledge acquired by previous post holders held in an information storage system would benefit newcomers to the expatriate position and become part of the organization’s information base in its corporate history.

In learning a foreign language, vocabulary and grammar don’t constitute an understanding of a nation. Making an effort to understand the underlying rationale does. When global organizations have to invest resources to initiate, maintain or develop, both eyes fixed on mathematical equations of profit margins does not automatically ensure success. Inter-cultural communication is on the increase, not decrease. Every effort to ensure that there is interpersonal/ cultural understanding will contribute to competitive advantage.


More information on Geert Hofstede and South Korea can be found at:
Hofstede - South Korea


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International careers have long been the path up the corporate ladder.


In earlier years, these positions included substantial benefits, both financial and personal, with first class travel, unlimited expense accounts, and free time to enjoy the local culture.


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