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  • Can Koreans Negotiate?: A Walk Through a Non-Negotiated Life

    May 9th, 2014  by  Asia-Pacific Global Research Group - Jasper Kim

    For those who have tried to “negotiate” with South Koreans, you may have noticed a “Socrates vs. Confucius” gap. This gap starts with a potential gap in mindset in which those who think from a Western mindset (Socratic-based) go head-to-head with those who think from an Asian mindset (Confucian-based). Rather than subjectively placing a judgment value in terms of which system is better, this Asia-Pacific Global Research blog instead takes a more objective approach by giving a glimpse into how the Asian Confucian-based negotiator may negotiate the way he or she does at the bargaining table.
    Understanding and stepping into the shoes of the other side is the first step towards a more collaborative interest-based negotiated outcome and solution.
    First, let’s take a look at the typical Korean. From day one, it is not uncommon for a Korean to be raised by parents typically (but not always) set in a strict vertically-based structure, in which one dominant parent, usually (but not always) the father, effectively lays down the law of the land in the household. In this structure, the Korean youth is told, not asked, what to do. This goes from small things like what to eat, to bigger ticket items like what to study, who to date, and when to go home. If the Korean child questions what the parent has to say, this is interpreted as a very bad, not good thing. For example, if the young Korean is told to eat everything on his plate for dinner before getting dessert by her parent, a “no” answer will be construed as a potential sign of betrayal against a superior. Such acts is viewed as one of the more shameful acts in Korean society, in which obedience and trust is a virtue, while being branded with a betrayal mark is tantamount to a “scarlet letter” and later societal banishment, known in Korean society as wang-dah. This of course stems from the Confucian influence that still so very much permeates this society in certain areas.
    Further, the Korean youth will only exceptionally be asked the question “why?” either by his or her parents, friends, teachers, or working colleagues. This is again based on the Korean social, academic, and working structures sharing one commonality: they are all vertical top-down, command-and-control based operating structures. This is a very important missing factor in terms of why Koreans are not instinctual negotiators.
    The Korean as a young person will rarely question a parent. Doing so, may at times lead to harsh ramifications, both verbally and at times physically. The Korean child will also rarely have a chance to negotiate with friends. This is because the Korean friendship structure is primarily also a top-down command-and-control structure based on those with seniority (sunbae) and those who are junior (hubae). The only rare exception to the general rule is with the small band of friends in the same class year (dong-gap). But again, outside of this tiny zone, the friendship structure is vertically-based.
    Once the Korean enters school, the Korean student enters yet another vertical structure in which negotiation is seen as near-betrayal and disloyalty. This is because the typical Korean classroom is another vertically-based top-down structure in which the teacher lays down the law of the land, that is the course lecture, in his or her ruling domain (i.e., the classroom). A student usually never dare asks “why?” or even offers a different opinion to the instructor for fear of retorsion (i.e., social backlash in the form of being given the wang-dah banishment treatment), or worse yet, a less-than-exemplary grade from his or her teacher. This links to the hyper-competition in Korean primary schools to enter the so-called elite universities, in which failure to do so, can lead to a “scarlet letter” branding in the form of being a social and economic outcast by future prospective companies and even marriage partners. In other words, the Koreans love and need the brand names in just about everything.
    Finally, after graduation, the Korean employee enters yet another vertically-based, question-not structure when entering into a domestic working structure. The top person is the company CEO, who in essence plays the role of strong military general commanding orders to be executed without question by his or her subordinates. If you step into most domestic working environments, it often somewhat resembles a military operation, with field operations led by colonels (team managers, or teem-jang) surrounded by his field officers (jeek-won). Much like in the military, questioning any command, or counter-offering any command, will very likely lead to a wang-dah treatment so harsh that such person may have difficulty finding employment again.
    Because of this, negotiation is never seen as a value-added skillset. In fact, for the Koreans, it is usually never a factor because no one applies it. And when it is needed, say in a FTA-type negotiation, it is new and thus viewed as an “all-or-nothing,” “black or white,” “your win is my loss” vertical proposition akin to outright warfare. This mentality is what it is because the Koreans have been living in it all their lives, for better or for worse. The notion of compromise (tah-hyup) is often construed as a weakness, rather than creative problem-solving, which will usually not be viewed favorably by one’s commander-in-chief albeit in the private or public sector here in Korea.
    In contrast, the American structure is relatively horizontal and flat, compared to the Korean vertical structure. Strange for the Koreans, many American parents will indirectly, and often unknowingly, begin the informal negotiation training from day one. For example, if the American child is told to eat everything on his or her plate before getting dessert, the child can often negotiate by saying something like “Well, if I eat all my tomatoes, but not the entire salad, can I then eat dessert?” And sometimes, the parent will accept this, not viewing it as a sign of disobedience or disloyalty.
    Entering school, the American student will often question if not challenge his or her instructor. Certainly, the question “why?” from student to teacher is not seen as academic disobedience, but often, an academic duty. This is reinforced by a barrage of assignments, which tests such ability to question, such as the requirement to write critical essays. Such tasks require the student to think independently, question authority, and then come to a personal conclusion based on the evidence. In other words, the American student is provided positive reinforcement if he or she can be rational rather than emotional. In Korea, this rational approach is at times seen as a cold, calculating and detached process, counter to their basic instincts.
    Finally, entering the workplace, the American enters a structure that is also relatively flat and horizontal. Although some hierarchy and reporting lines exist on paper, in effect, based on the need to maximize value in each fiscal quarter, each employee is expected to be proactive, which includes the acceptance of suggestions to question and improve existing structures and methods. When an American worker is given a task by another team member, asking “why” is not a bad thing. In fact, not asking “why” may be viewed as inappropriate inaction. And forging a solution to problems, which incorporates brainstorming and suggestions from many ranks, is one reason why American corporations seem to claw their way back from a bad corner. Most recently, this was seen in the 1980s and early 1990s when many held the view that the Japanese would dominate the United States economically. But as we know, this turned out not to be the case, and thus emerged a new breed of American companies like Yahoo, Amazon, and Google.
    In other words, from day one, the Americans see most (but not all) things as potentially negotiable, in stark contrast to the Koreans. For this reason, yes, Koreans can negotiate, but many can find it unusual and awkward, and as such, do it grudgingly.

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