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What is inhwa?

Historically, ancient Korean dynasties adopted an extreme form of Confucianism, introduced by the Chinese around 108 BC, to control citizens and safeguard the government by discouraging individual thinking or acting. The Choson dynasty later formally introduced a class system and officially prescribed etiquette kingdom-wide. These mandated manners are the foundation of a circumstantial morality system. Only those citizens that followed the conduct prescribed by the Confucian government were regarded as morally upright and proper, while those neglecting to do so were regarded as immoral and socially sanctioned.

Korea is widely regarded as the most Confucian nation worldwide, an important factor when considering engaging or interacting with the Korean business world. A hierarchical structure is deeply rooted in Korea’s authoritarian and militant history. Today, Koreans still relate to each other in a class system guided and defined by particular etiquettes and customs.

When engaging with Korean people in a business context (e.g. a business venture), understanding and respecting local custom and cultural norms is directly correlated to that venture’s success.

In order to establish a positive relationship, Korean culture demands the maintenance of stable environment of kibun, which can roughly be described in terms of pride, face, mood, or state of mind. Disturbing others’ kibun, by disregarding social hierarchy, giving negative feedback, displaying emotions or openly criticising someone is considered extremely impolite, as it disrupts the harmony between people. Koreans are willing to go to great lengths to maintain their and others’ kibun. This conditional cultural reflex can have detrimental effects on business ventures, as negative information may be withheld or softened for the sake of maintaining inhwa and not disturbing the other party’s kibun. Furthermore, a violation of a business partner’s or one’s own kibun might make the development or sustaining of positive, long-lasting relationships impossible and could potentially be very costly to the business.

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