OPINION: IT has been nearly a year and a half since I arrived back in Melbourne from Seoul, where I lived from 2007 to 2019. A lot changed in both cities over the time I lived and worked abroad, and even more has changed in the past few months.
People often ask me what the main differences are between Australia and Korea, so I thought I would write this article to share 10 of the biggest contrasts when it comes to working in an office. To be clear, I don’t think one is necessarily better than the other…they are just different, and strikingly so in some instances. I do have a preference in some of the categories, of course.
A caveat: I lived as an expat in Korea, so my view of things (and of how things are now in Australia) is through that lens and from that perspective.
When in Korea, I would welcome people traveling on business to the office who may or may not have run out of business cards by the time I met them. I used to think that they were unprepared if they ran out. Didn’t they know business cards were important in Asia? Upon my return, I realised that business cards are pretty out of fashion in Australia. It’s almost a bit crass to shove your business card in front of a person within 30 seconds of meeting them, whereas in Korea, it would have been rude not to present your business card upon first meeting someone in a business setting. Business cards became a great way for me to help remember people’s names (i.e. placing them in the order people are sitting in a meeting), so not having them used much in Australia threw me off at first.
Homogeneous versus multicultural society
Korea is basically a homogeneous society. There is only one race of Koreans. Foreigners make up less than 4% of the population (it’s actually doubled from just 2% a decade ago), and the plurality of those are ethnically-Korean migrants with Chinese passports. Not many other countries are like this. This sameness permeates through society in other ways, such as conformity to social norms and the importance of the group over the needs of the individual. One area where some diversity exists amongst Koreans is in regard to religion, with atheists, Buddhists and Christians all well represented in most segments – but this doesn’t present much of a distinction, and it’s certainly not visible. Australia, on the other hand, is truly multicultural, and even more so than it was just a few years ago. The point is that there is almost no chance of a cultural misunderstanding in a Korean workplace (except if expats are involved…and even then, when in doubt, try to do things “the Korean way”).
For Korean office workers, lunch time is at 12:00pm. No ifs, ands or buts about it. A lunch appointment is always at 12:00pm. If you walk through the office at 12:15pm, there is nobody there. The conformity of the timing of lunch is as stringent as the post lunch process: many people love to grab a coffee on the way back to the office (optional), but everyone brushes their teeth after lunch (mandatory). To give you an idea of how uniform the tooth brushing ritual is, there was a building that was built a few years ago in Seoul that included a special tooth brushing area separate from the bathrooms and we all agreed that this was a fantastic and worthwhile addition to the base building offering! Brushing my teeth after lunch was a habit I just dropped not long after I got back to Australia as too many people would be giving me weird or confused looks as I brushed my teeth next to people who were washing their hands in the bathroom.
Perhaps Coronavirus will change this, but the idea of a crowded commuter train or elevator in Australia is one which has plenty of room in Korea. I can remember thinking numerous times in Korea that surely no one else will get on the train or the elevator given how packed it already was, but sure enough people would keep piling in…I don’t think I ever quite got over that, even after 10 years. However, when I got back home, I saw pictures of “over-crowded” trains in Melbourne and I thought they looked pretty spacious. A couple of other differences in relation to elevators: in Australia, women often get the opportunity to go first, but there is no such rule in Korea; in Korea, people will keep the elevator door open for anyone within eye sight (this is one of the rare occasions in Korea when people are not in hurry), whereas Australians seem keener on letting laggards wait for the next one.
Progressive causes in the workplace
I was amazed by how many progressive causes big companies actively support in Australia. I was impressed as I observed the genuine commitment towards Acknowledgement of Country, Diversity & Inclusion, LGBTQI awareness and RUOK? (and probably others I’m forgetting now). In particular, last year two transgender people came to the office to speak about their life experiences – this really proved to me that the company was genuine about raising awareness. When I was listening to their stories and struggles for equity, I remember thinking that this would so not fly in Korea as these types of social issues were completely taboo in a Korean corporate environment. Corporate Social Responsibility is important in Korea, but it’s more often about helping the less economically fortunate (domestically or abroad) than it is to support social causes.
Small talk in business meetings
In Korea, there is bowing, a brief exchanging of pleasantries and then it’s down to business in meetings. In Australia, small talk at the front end is a much more prominent feature of meetings. Being based in Melbourne, it’s a good thing that I continued to follow AFL pretty closely when I lived overseas. The ubiquity of AFL in Melbourne hadn’t changed one bit in the 12 years I was abroad. Small talk in Korea more often occurs after the meeting is done. One possible reason for the difference that I just thought of while writing this: in Korea, visitors are routinely escorted to the elevator at the conclusion of the meeting (which also happens sometimes in Australia, but not so routinely), so it’s worth reserving some small talk topics for while walking to and waiting for the elevator.
Splitting the bill
Splitting the bill in a restaurant is extremely uncommon in Korea, especially in a business setting. It would be embarrassing for everyone involved, and probably confusing too. In Australia, obviously there are times when there is a clear host and a clear guest, so the host pays, but there are many occasions when everyone goes Dutch. In Korea, there may be some debate over who should pay, but the idea of the compromise being to split the bill would be laughable in most situations. If there is any doubt, the person who is the oldest or most senior pays…or you simply take turns and any small differences come out in the wash.
It is an unwritten rule in many Korean companies that junior staff don’t leave the office until their boss does (although as society modernises, that is changing). It wouldn’t be unusual for a Korean boss to call their employee out of office hours. I have heard many stories of office workers being summoned back to the office after they’d left for the day to work on an “important” task. A couple of years ago, the Korean government introduced maximum work hours so people don’t work for more than 52 hours a week, to stop people working too much. Big companies introduced mechanisms to monitor working hours to ensure they were not in breach of the laws. To ensure compliance, determinations were made on whether a work dinner and drinks session with the team was counted within “work hours”. Conversely, in Australia, people have no qualms about leaving work on time (or sometimes early), and work events after 6:00pm are few and far between. We have a clear divide between work and private time, and in Australia there is more of a focus on output (results) than input (time served).
The first week I returned to work in Australia, I was told that this person from my team works from home on this day, and someone else does on that day, and so on; the question was: on which day of the week did I plan to work from home? I was a surprised; working from home was not a thing in Korea. I soon realised that my new team was not at all unusual. Plenty of people I knew from outside work also worked from home on one or two days a week (and more now temporarily and possibly permanently into the future). Most office workers in Korea would never have dreamed to work from home before COVID-19 – and I predict the lasting impacts of Coronavirus from a workplace flexibility perspective will be far less pronounced there as well.
There are too many formalities in Korea to go through here, but a few to note include everyone calling each other by their title in and out of the office, the regular bowing throughout the day amongst co-workers while passing each other in the corridor, and the significance of where people sit for meetings (certain positions around the desk indicate status and seniority). Australia, on the other hand, is relaxed! Other ways in which Australia is less formal include:
– a lack of regard for hierarchy (Australia really is a quite egalitarian society, where age and title in Korea predetermine the nature of any relationship between two people),
– swearing being pretty common and open in the workplace (definitely not done in Korea in a professional setting), and,
– what is classed as business attire (Australia has changed a lot in this area over the time I was away, in that it’s a lot less formal now).
So, there you have it: my top 10 contrasts between doing business in Korea and Australia. It will probably be a while before we are all able to travel overseas again, so even if you never have reason to do business in Korea, hopefully this article has given you a little virtual taste of international business travel…and explained why reverse culture shock is a thing.
By Darren Krakowiak. Darren worked from 2007 to 2015 in various roles at JLL Korea, and from 2015 to 2018 as the country head of CBRE Korea. He returned home to Melbourne with JLL in 2019 and then founded CRE Success in 2020, where he provides coaching, consulting and mentoring to the commercial real estate industry. He released an eBook, The 5 Ps of Commercial Real Estate Success, earlier this year, which is available to download for free at https://www.cresuccess.co/ebook and also hosts CRE Success: The Podcast.