How to make friends in South Korea

Some countries are more difficult for expats to make local friends in than others, for example Denmark. South Korea is another country that is ranking low on the InterNations survey in terms of the categories “feeling at home” and “making local friends.” Here are some observations about how to make friends in South Korea, based on the research and experiences of my colleagues Sven Horak and Jong Gyu Park (read their more extended piece on p. 60 of the book Breaking out of the Expat Bubble).

A homogenous culture

South Korea is quite a homogenous society with a comparatively low level of immigration, mostly from other Asian countries. It is usually described as a collectivist society focused on the community (or ingroup), conformity and social hierarchy based on the Confucian value and norm system. To understand social relationships in South Korea, it is good to know that the society emphasizes ‘particularistic trust’ – people trust other specific individuals, not strangers (or foreigners). South Koreans distinguish between in- and outgroups and informal network are very important.

Inmaek and yongo

You may have heard of guanxi in China – inmaek is similar to this, being the network one develops in the course of life. It is often used to help less-fortunate people secure a job or promotion and is something that expats can also build during their time in South Korea. Another common informal network is yongo, which consists of traditional ties formed through kinship, coming from the same hometown or region, or attending the same school – which are very difficult or even impossible for a foreigner to acquire. Yongo is rather homogenous and such ties are closed and exclusive. They can lead to seeing the expat as the outgroup which can make it difficult for an expat in terms of getting things done and getting ahead in life. Fortunately, the idea of yongo is now extended to include the same company, industry or profession. Such ties are called jikyon and eobyon ties, and expats can also form them.

How to make friends in South Korea

It may seem difficult to become part of these informal networks, but it certainly seems possible to develop both inmaek and yongo ties related to the workplace. Expats should also realise that it is quite normal in South Korea to meet up with colleagues outside of the workplace. People often meet up with their co-workers for dinner or in the weekend, and it is important to accept such invitations because they might help develop social ties with South Koreans. Nowadays, it also seems that locals are increasingly interested in traveling or even working abroad, and creating what is often termed global inmaek, namely connections with foreigners.

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