Learn to Smile (for $310 an Hour)It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances, Oscar Wilde said more than a century ago. Jung Yun-ah, 44, a corporate image consultant, may have a similar sentiment in mind as she stands atop a stool in the banquet room of a restaurant to teach wives of top business executives how to bow with the utmost elegance. "Bend your torso forward at about a 45-degree angle, and keep your neck still," she says. The 30 women at the exclusive workshop, all wives of chiefs of the country's leading corporations, follow her orders. The event is titled "Image-Making for the Wives of CEOs."
"Stay in that position for about four seconds," Ms. Jung orders the group, then slowly calls out the count. "This'll hurt my back," a woman cries out during the middle of the exercise. Ms. Jung responds assertively, "Remember: You're all stars, you're just not under the spotlights; you need to act strategically in public."
She steps down from the stool to impart the next lesson. She grabs a teacup from the table and makes a point of holding just the outer tip of the handle with two fingers. "Never squeeze your fingers through the handle's hole," Ms. Jung says. "You can when you're alone, but not when you're in the company of others."
According to theories and data compiled by the image consulting industry, you only have about 10 seconds to make a first impression, and more than half of the impression depends on your appearance. Also, in one survey of high-level managers, 90 percent said that personal presentation was the key to getting a job or advancing in a career.
"Image is only useful when it reveals your inner self," said Jung Ok-young, the senior trainer at the Samsung Human Resources Development Center. "I am curious how they train people to fabricate their images. Formality is not everything in business."
Charging large sums to touch up an image has raised more than one eyebrow. "I would never recommend it to my employees," Mr. Jung said.
Despite such concerns, the image consulting business has been growing over the past few years, but it really took off when unemployment has become a serious issue. Offering various image-related services like wardrobe analysis, business etiquette and speaking effectiveness, some of the local image consultants charge up to 400,000 won ($310) for an hour of private counseling. At a typical session, a team of in-house stylists and a consultant give "diagnoses" on the client's fashion coordination, business manners and personal presentation. Then the stylists prescribe a tailored image that fits the the client, consisting of perhaps a style makeover and etiquette training.
"Everything in business is performance," says Ms. Jung, who is a chief consultant at her firm, Imagetech Institute, and has served as an image adviser for many politicians, including President Kim Dae-jung and his wife, the first lady Lee Hee-ho.
Stylishly attired in a dark power suit and matching high heels, Ms. Jung is the author of three best-sellers helping people dress to win: "There is a Face of Success," "My Image Means Success" and "Manage the Rules of Success." One of the main points of her books is that the right style varies depending on time, place and occasion, but that the most natural and befitting image of the person should remain consistent throughout.
A good example of the power that image exercises is the recent drug scandal involving the actress Hwang Su-jung, Ms. Jung says. "Koreans really believed that she was as innocent and gracious as she had always presented herself in public," she says. "That's why they were more shocked about her incident than about the sex scandals involving other women celebrities － they felt really betrayed." She adds that while putting a lot of focus on one's image is quite acceptable in the entertainment world, it's not tolerated so much in everyday life. In business environments, for example, Koreans are averse to working on their image, even when they need to make professional presentations, according to Ms. Jung.
"I think it has to do with the traditions of Confucianism," she says. "If you emphasize your external self, people associate that with a lack of maturity." Ms. Jung points out an old saying among Korean executives: A person won't get promoted if he smiles too much. "Perhaps it's exactly the opposite with women."
Ms. Jung says 70 percent of her clients are women, which indicates that concerns related to etiquette and appearance are still largely confined to the fairer sex. She says that's not surprising, because the characteristics she teaches are considered "soft values," in contrast to the more "serious" concerns in the male-dominated world, like competition of all sorts or the all-encompassing pursuit of profits. But things are changing in the nation's offices, Ms. Jung says. Men are now finding they must outcharm other men to get ahead.
"Even in supermarkets, we buy the product just by looking at the packaging," Ms. Jung pointed out. "It's sad that the way people think becomes much like the system of capitalism, but people are increasingly assuming that there isn't such a dramatic difference in substance anymore."
Oscar Wilde would probably agree.
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