If you’re planning a business meeting with South Koreans, you should ask your Korean partner whether you should bring an interpreter. Most South Koreans speak some level of English, but it’s best to have a translator around who knows both languages and cultures well to avoid common misunderstandings.
For example, the word gidaehanda means both “I look forward to” and “I expect” in Korean. Since the latter is easier to say, many Koreans will say (or write) it instead of “I look forward to”, even if they want to convey they’re looking forward to your next meeting. In some context, this might be interpreted as rudeness, even though it was meant to be nice.
Similarly, if your South Korean partner wants to refer to a previously expressed idea, they might want to say “I thought that…” or “I was under the impression that….” Translated from Korean however, these phrases are synonyms of “I knew that…” Your Korean business partner may opt for this phrase, as it’s simpler and easier to say than the others. Again, this is not a sign of rudeness, it’s a simple mistranslation.
Whether you’re using an interpreter or not, your South Korean partners will be very impressed if you know a few Korean expressions yourself. Here’s a list of the most useful phrases you can say in a business environment.
Whether you’re using an interpreter or not, your South Korean partners will be very impressed if you know a few Korean expressions yourself
Korean is an agglutinant language, which means that prepositions like ‘to’, ‘under’, ‘from’, etc. are usually attached to a word instead of preceding or following it as separate words. A note about pronunciation: the Korean language has a different rhythm than English. Try not to stress any syllables (as it’s incredible difficult for a foreigner to get it right). Just say them evenly in one sequence. The last syllable is often elongated.
1. Hello and goodbye = An-nyeong-ha-se-yo
This greeting is accepted in almost any situation. Its written form in Hangul scripts looks like this: 안녕하세요. If you’re on the phone, you can say yo-bo-se-yo instead.
2. Welcome = Hwan-yeong ham-ni-da
Instead of an-nyeong-ha-se-yo, your host might greet you with this phrase. You can say 환영 as well if you’re the one hosting your South Korean partner.
3. Nice to meet you = Ban-gap-sum-ni-da
Together with ‘An-nyeong-ha-se-yo’, you can use this phrase when meeting your partner for the first time. If accompanied by a handshake and/or a bow, you have a perfect South Korean greeting you can use in any business environment. In written form: 반갑습니다.
4. Thank you = Kam-sa-ham-ni-da
Whatever you’re thanking your partner, your waiter, or anybody else for, 감사합니다 is the word to say. If you’re really grateful, add ‘te-da-ni’ to the beginning, which means ‘very much’.
5. You’re welcome = Chun-man-eyo
The usual response to ‘kam-sa-ham-ni-da’ is 천만에요.
6. Excuse me = Jam-shi-man-yo
You can use this phrase if you want someone to listen to you, move out of your way, or wait a little while for you to finish something. In writing, this phrase looks like this: 잠시만요.
7. I’m sorry = Choi-song-ham-ni-da
Say 죄송합니다 any time you need to apologize for something.
8. Please = Ju-se-yo
주세요 is a very useful word. If you put it on the end of a sentence, whatever you said becomes a polite request. For example, if you’re ordering kimchi at your business meal, say “kim-chi-ju-se-yo”. If you’d like to have a glass of water, say “mul-ju-se-yo”.
9. Where is the …? = …o-di-ye-yo?
Whatever you’re looking for, put 어디예요 behind the word and you’ll have your question ready.
10. Is there a…/Do you have a… = …iss-seo-yo?
Similar to the previous one, if you put 있어요 behind another word, your partner will know you’re asking to see something.
11. I don’t speak Korean well = Han-guk-mal jal mot-hae-yo
This phrase looks like this in writing: 한국말 잘 못해요.
Your South Korean partners won’t expect you to learn their language overnight. However, making an effort to learn these basic phrases will demonstrate your commitment to business negotiations, which is of key importance to South Korean businesspeople. This way, you can earn your South Korean partners’ respect and goodwill, which is crucial for a long-term relationship.