Sunday, March 18, 2007

Cultural Sensitivity: What's Wrong with this Picture?

I'm often asked "what exactly do you do?" One aspect of my work is research-based consulting. Another dimension is conducting training sessions and workshops. In addition, I also work with a number of non-Korean executives of Korean-based firms, global companies doing business in Korea, or business partnered with a Korean firm.

One message I stress is cultural sensitivity. This can be a challenge--most often because we " don't know, what we don"t know."

Education and spending lots of time understanding a nation/region's current and past issues is key. In fact, how effective you are in working with Korean teams can often center on how they perceive you understand their country and issues impacting the workplace.

In other words, the more they feel you understand Korea, its market, and the company...the more trust and cooperation will manifest. In contrast, I often sense Korean teams feeling some westerners know little of not only the dynamics of their company, but broader issues....

Ironically, until we develop strong trust, many key insights into a company will not be shared. So one of my suggestions is to stay current on all the broader issues and use this as a tool to build trust.

Here is but one example of cultural understanding. In using Korean maps for presentations and printed materials, one should be sensitive to how geography is labeled. What may seem as mundane is actually a huge issue--an issue that irks many Koreans. It's also a great topic to informally discuss with Korean team members.

To answer the question I've posted above, here is a Korea Times article highlighting what has been an ongoing concern.

Korea Times
Korean civic groups have accused a U.N. agency of posting a site map containing mistakes about South Korea and its surroundings.

The U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) recently posted a map of South Korea and called the waters between the country and Japan Sea of Japan, the name favored by Tokyo.

Korea calls the waters the East Sea and has requested the world to use at least both expressions _ Sea of Japan and East Sea _ on their maps.

The FAO map also misspells Ullung Island in East Sea as Ulreuno-Do and Kurye in South Cholla Province as Gurve to name two of the other mistakes.

The errors irk Koreans. Civic groups like the Voluntary Agency Network for Korea (VANK) vow to have them corrected.

I don't know why the FAO commits such grave mistakes, VANK founder Park Gi-tae said. Together with our 15,000 members both at home and abroad, we will go all-out to urge the FAO to correct the misspellings and to add East Sea to its map, Park said.

This is not the first time that the FAO, a specialized U.N. agency that leads global efforts to fight hunger, made a headline in Korea due to inaccurate maps.

Earlier in 2005, the organization's map indicated Dokdo, Korea's easternmost islands in the East Sea, belonged to Japan, generating national anger.

Back then, the FAO scrapped the contentious map in a couple of days after our protests. I don't know why it continues to make errors on Korea while keeping its data on Japan correct, Park said.

Before achieving its self-proclaimed goal of defeating hunger in the world, the FAO should rectify its mistakes on South Korea, Park said.

Cyberschoolbus, a U.N. Web site dealing with global issues, is also using a map that labeled the sea between the two countries Sea of Japan instead of East Sea. (Refer to

We will try to force the FAO and Cyberschoolbus to revise the names. If they don't accept our requests, we plan to ask all the other U.N. agencies not to adopt the erroneous maps and data, Park said.

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