There are many sociocultural differences between the United States and South Korea. Some of these differences may seem trivial, while others are more profound. For instance, the shape of a triangle, and the number ten have negative associations in the South Korean culture. It is believed they bring bad luck. This may seem to be a small, unimportant point, but it could negatively impact the success of a presentation by a U.S. citizen to a South Korean audience.
In terms of a perception of corruption, there is a big gap between the United States and South Korea. In 2005, South Korea was tied in 40th place on the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index with an overall score of 5.0. In comparison, the United States was ranked 17th with a score of 7.6. A score of 5.0 is what Transparency International considers to be the borderline between countries that do and do not have a corruption problem. (the higher the score, the better) So, South Korea is on the cusp. Although reforms have been initiated, changing the ways that people do business is a slow process.
To establish credibility with South Koreans, it is important that the initial contacts of a U.S. company seeking to do business in South Korea, be done in person, face-to-face. Cold calling, faxing or e-mail is not recommended at first. A formal introduction by an appropriate intermediary is also considered to be the most successful approach. If business cards are exchanged, another difference in social etiquette between the U.S. and Korean cultures comes up. In South Korea, surnames are XXXXX XXXXX first, because it is considered very impolite to use a person's given name in business. Formal business attire and a translator are also recommended.
Cultural differences can be frustrating for those used to American-style business dealings. For example, in South Korea, information can be difficult to obtain. Lengthy explanations and detailed histories may be required in an information request. If the request has not been met, it is considered good form to keep pressing. In the U.S., it would be considered rude and pushy. South Koreans take perseverance as a sign of seriousness. In South Korea, it is considered impolite to say, "no". A "no" will often be signaled by delays or difficulties. The U.S. culture requires a more direct approach. It is considered cowardly to avoid saying no. Another difficulty is that the Korean language reverses "no" and "yes", so that a "no", can really mean "yes"! It is best to use full sentences, rather than one word answers, when speaking with Koreans.
These are some of the cultural differences that can lead to miscommunication and confusion. Even at the highest levels of government interactions, mistakes have been made by representatives of both cultures. A recent meeting between the U.S. President and his Korean counterpart, showed that the two had different understandings about whether or not the Korean War was officially over. When South Koreans come to the U.S. or when U.S. citizens go to South Korea, there is a period of culture shock that no amount of training can forestall.