Now most foreigners in Korea are familiar with the word '눈치 (noonchi)' sometimes translated into "Tact" or as I have put in the title "Self-awareness".I don't think there is just one way to translate this Korean concept but the way Koreans act in the office is determined by this ‘Noonchi’. I like to think of this concept as sort of the invisible set of office rules and expectations that all Koreans believe they have to abide by. I refer to them as invisible because there is actually no one in a company that enforces such rules there is just a profound belief that the company directors or team leaders want it so!
Ok so have I confused you enough? Think of it basically as a set of unspoken rules in the office which are centered around the concept of looking good in front of your superiors.It is a really difficult concept as an Australian because our culture and to extent business culture frowns upon non genuine actions or words to please superiors. Sucking up to the boss in a lot of countries in fact is looked down on; However in Korea these actions, which are completely insincere, are expected by superiors and creates the situation where if you are not sucking up to the boss and everyone else is, then you might lose out.
So where exactly in Korean business culture will I encounter Noonchi?
Why do Koreans work so late?Koreans have some of the worst working hours in the OECD and while most of your Korean coworkers and friends will have you believe that they are genuinely THAT busy that they need to work overtime (which in some cases is true) the fact is that Korea is also among the worst for productivity in the OECD. The culture of working long hours in Korean companies are a result of a variety of influences - the epic rise from poverty to middle class power; top - bottom hierarchy structures, constant reporting, micro management and Noonchi.
What holds most Koreans back so late is the belief that they can't leave on time because this gives the impression of not working hard or rather not working as hard as their colleagues and boss. The general rule in a Korean company is to not leave until your direct team leader has left which would be fine if not for the team leader also believing that they can't leave until a certain time because they also want to give off the impression of working hard. Perception reigns supreme in a Korean office and giving off the impression of working hard by staying late is something all Koreans will do. In fact although your contract will state working hours from 9am - 6pm working until 8-9pm will be the common "noonchi" finish time.
Presentations and Meetings
Noonchi affects business meetings and presentations in a variety of ways but non more so than what I have just mentioned above about perception. In the western world we are taught to make our powerpoint presentations simple, use easy language, short, to the point with a focus on what we say and not what we put up on the screen. The 'Noonchi' of appearing that you have worked hard means many if not all the presentations you will encounter in Korea will have 40 to 50 slides; 30 of which are unneccessary. Slides are busy, packed with information, big words and structured into useless diagrams and flow charts. My Korean coworker used to spend 2 - 3 days on the PPT alone for a short 10 minute presentation report.
Strict levels of hierarchy and to a lesser extent "Noonchi" will also dictate how junior staff act during meetings. Once again in Western business we are encouraged to voice our opinions and in fact if we have nothing to say at a meeting then it's looked down upon. In Korea it is the opposite. As a junior staff your role in a meeting is to just sit there with your notebook open and pretend you are jotting down important stuff. Opinions are not expressed!
Another side affect of Noonchi that really hurts productivity is the inability to be direct about ones thoughts, opinions or too even ask when you don't understand what is required! Noonchi once again dictates that younger workers in an effort to appear adequate at their jobs will avoid asking their team leader directly any questions or seek any help; rather they will use office messaging applications to ask others who they are more friendly with to help them out! The office communicators (like msn messenger) are also another major issue in the Korean work space. Because of noonchi it is unlikely that there will be much talk around the office, because it will seem like they are just having fun and not working, or they are afraid of disturbing others - so everyone, EVEN IF they are sitting right next to you will communicate via the intranet messaging applications. It's ridiculous to think that you are not able to turn to your colleague next to you and ask flat out what it is that you need help with but instead have to send them a message via your computer like it's a secret in-coded message all for the sake of "looking" like you are working and not just chatting.
Company and Coworker Events
As I have said before in Australian society insincere gestures or actions are considered far worse than not making any gesture at all and this concept is most tested in this aspect of Korean company culture. Company and coworkers events are regularly posted on intranets - the common ones in Korea include weddings, funerals, and baby's first birthdays. Where noonchi comes into play here is events related to coworkers in your team / department you are expected to attend. I have my own example in which I attended the funeral of our Department directors father, this director who I had met once at my interview I was now seeing for the second time at his fathers funeral....awkward!
Such an appearance is so insincere I couldn't even imagine attending such a function in Australia but in Korea it is encouraged. Yes I get it is a nice gesture of support but the reality is you have a group of coworkers who don't care about who died or even about how the HR director is feeling but are solely just at the event because noonchi dictates that they should go. Not to mention the money side of things! Weddings and funerals all in which you give money its starts to become an expensive cost - the idea being you will get it back when you have your own wedding for example (provided you are still with the same company!)
Overall the best way to navigate Korean noonchi is to embrace it to the point where you can see how it affects your coworkers actions. Ultimately being skilled at noonchi and getting a feeling for your coworkers feelings and emotions is one of the most important assets in corporate Korea. That said, I believe its important for all foreigners in Korea to recognize Noonchi to the point that they can actively remove themselves from the actions. By all means it is great to understand why Koreans work late or attend coworker functions when they don't want to but to follow those sets of rules yourself is just giving into a system that is unsustainable. Koreans want changes in the office and if the foreigners conform then what hope do they have?