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Business Ideals/Principles in Korean Society

July 19, 2009

Recently I took a vacation to Jeju Island. I wanted to do some horseback riding, and found a place on Hallasan. They had 10, 20, and 30 minute packages for 20, 30, and 50K won, respectively. We were there the week before the peak season started, and the place was practically deserted (every place was…we were the lone tent in our campground, right on Hyupjae Beach). I offered them a deal: How about me and my girlfriend both do the 30 minute ride for 75K?

They discussed it, unbeknownst to them that I could understand what they were saying. The proprietress said to the horsehand: “How much of a discount is that?” He responded, “Twenty-five percent.” “That’s too much of a discount.” The horsehand respectfully declined my offer. My girlfriend (who is neither Korean nor American) said to me (in English): “They’d rather have the horses stand around for that extra 10 minutes and make no money than pick up an extra 25 thousand?”

That’s a very Western, dollars and cents mentality. If there are no customers (and none expected) then any money is better than none. Why don’t Koreans think this way? As usual, I asked a few. My university students didn’t seem to understand this mentality either, so I had to talk to a couple of older Koreans. “Its the principle,” one said. “In a situation where haggling is not customary, the price is the price. By giving you a discount, the owner may feel he or she is being taken advantage of, and the fact that they’ll make more money by agreeing to your request isn’t the most important principle in this situation. Their service has value. By paying less than that value, you’re literally devaluing it. It may be a point of pride to be able to say “Sorry, sir, but our services don’t come that cheaply.”

I thought that was interesting. This exists in American culture as well, but I don’t notice it to the same extent I tend to notice it in Korea. This may be simply because Americans aren’t as likely to negotiate on prices, so there are less instances for me to have noticed the phenomenon.

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