Corporate Confucianism by Frank Ahrens

Article by Frank Ahrens from

Doing business in Korea, China or Japan — or with an East Asian company here in America — can be confusing and frustrating, whether you’re a corporation looking for new markets or a non-profit seeking partnerships. You won’t succeed without an understanding of the ancient philosophy of Confucianism and how it continues to drive the relationships that govern every part of life in East Asia — including the business world.

It’s time to learn “Corporate Confucianism.”

taken from


Confucius (551-479 B.C.) was a Chinese philosopher, moral teacher and writer whose impact on Eastern culture rivals that of Jesus’s teachings on the West. He believed in moral and ethical rule by virtuous kings who valued their subjects’ welfare above all else. More prosaically, he did not believe all people equal, which created a rigid caste system and led to intricate and unbreakable dictates of interaction between classes, with highly formal and complex rules of expression and relationship. Rank is based on birth, age and seniority must be respected by youth; men rank higher than women. Fifteen-hundred years on, albeit in less-strict form, many of the rules of Confucius’s “Analects” drive the workday throughout East Asia.

Though business may look the same in the East as in the West — whether you encounter it in dark corporate suits or start-up hoodies — it is not. As you scratch the surface, you may feel that things seem completely reversed from the way you’ve operated in the West, thanks to Confucianism.

If you believe your corporation, organization or educational institution needs to learn Corporate Confucianism — knowing what to expect, how to react and more importantly, how to understand — contact Frank Ahrens at to discuss booking and engagement fees. 

““Frank and I both got to experience business, Gangnam-style. If you want to understand how business in one of the world’s fastest-rising economies works, read ‘Seoul Man.’ “

— Cyriac Roeding, co-founder of mobile-shopping app Shopkick, acquired for $250 million by South Korea conglomerate SK Telecom/SK Planet

Here are three lessons, illustrated by passages from “Seoul Man.” They offer a taste of what you need to succeed:

1)    Up is down, black is white

From “Seoul Man:”

“A few months before I left Hyundai and Korea, I was dining with my team. One of my junior female team members, whose English was quite good and who had lived for a short while in the States, was sitting to my left, next to the napkins. I asked her to pass me one.

She did and then asked me, ‘Did you ask me to hand you the napkins because in your culture it’s considered rude to reach in front of someone while they’re eating?’

‘Yes,” I said, “that’s right.’

‘In our culture, it’s considered rude to interrupt someone while they’re eating to ask them to hand you something,’ she replied. That was why Koreans had been jabbing their hands in front of me at meals for the previous three years, I realized.

But there it was, finally explained to me so clearly that even I could understand: each culture—Korean and American, Eastern and Western—had been behaving in a way it believed to be polite, only to actually be behaving in the rudest way possible to the other culture. It was a small example of what I came to realize was the larger truth: Korean and American, East and West, have entirely different ways of looking at and understanding the meaning of the same thing. And although each side probably believes its intent is clear to the other side, oftentimes it could not be more opaque.”

Lesson: I call this the “180 Degree Lesson:” Things in Confucian Asia can seem exactly opposite of the West. Learn and appreciate the cultural history, signifiers and stress points of the Korean on the other side of the table from you. Then you’ll understand why his or her behavior is not rude or mystifying, but makes perfect sense.


2) Drinking with a purpose

From “Seoul Man:”

“Westerners get just as drunk as Asians. But I soon learned there was a purpose to the Asian drunkenness—or, as they like to call it, the ‘drinking culture.’ It was supposed to lead to closer teamwork back at the office, better productivity, and the creation of real affection between colleagues.

At hoesik (or ‘work drinking dinner’), the woes of the salaryman’s life spill forth from Hyundai executives: starting early, staying late, tough boss, working all your life for one company, being reassigned to foreign countries at a moment’s notice, feeling like a number, being yelled at, striving to make money to pay for after-school tutoring and the best universities for your children.

Maybe it sounded miserable, but it was a shared misery, and everyone at these dinners had the same points of reference, the same shared culture and experience, the same dreams and disappointments, and within those grew a love for each other.”

Lesson: This is the “Binary Lesson.” Korea is a binary society — you are either a Korean’s blood-brother, or a total stranger. That’s why you don’t smile at people on the street you don’t know or make small talk in the elevator – it makes everyone uncomfortable. Bonding is imperative in the Confucian business world — business is personal. The best way to bond with a Korean is hoesik – if you can handle the multiple shots of soju you must down during dinner. If you can’t keep up shot-for-shot, take a sip of soju with each of the seemingly endless toasts instead of downing the whole shot. Your hosts will probably understand and will appreciate your making the effort to fit in.


3) Feel the jeong

From “Seoul Man:”

“At one of our dinners with foreign journalists, one of my very friendly Hyundai executive colleagues, who had worked in several foreign countries for the company, rose at the table and told the journalists that in order to understand Korea, they must understand jeong.

Trying to explain jeong in English to non-Koreans may be close to impossible. There is no English equivalent to the feeling. But it is essential that foreigners understand that it exists and that it matters deeply to Koreans. Indeed, a Korean friend mentioned to me, it is considered a drawback in Korean culture if someone is too analytical or too rational. If they are not emotional or passionate—if they don’t show the jeong—they are considered lacking a vital ethnic trait.

In succinct English, the Hyundai executive told the journalists, ‘Jeong is, even if you hate someone’s guts, you understand their situation.’ It is much more than just love. Once I learned about jeong, I started to understand a little better the way many South Koreans feel toward North Korea. On paper, it makes no sense to engage North Korea, to trust North Korea, to do anything but resist and work toward North Korea’s downfall. But jeong softens the South Korean feeling toward the North.

Logically, it makes no sense. Emotionally, it makes perfect sense.”

Lesson: The is the “EQ Lesson.” Foreigners in East Asia must have a high EQ – Emotional Quotient. In Korea, for example, you must have great noonchi – the ability to read a situation based on non-verbal clues and a deep understanding of the other person’s situation; you must understand han – the collective emotional melancholy that stems from thousands of years of being wronged by foreign powers and that yearns for justice (or, better, being global No. 1 at anything) – and you must feel the jeong.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *