Part of this, of course, is that bowing is common in South Korea but not really done in the United States. But there's more to it than that. South Korea's corporate culture, like the Korean economic boom of the last few decades, is unusual and much-studied. In some ways, this bow was a symbol of what makes the country's corporate culture so different.
Part of it has to do with the way South Korea's economy grew: with a heavy guiding hand from the state. The government helped a number of once-small companies consolidate into massive conglomerates known as chaebols, which are often family-run and have since accumulated tremendous political and economic power.
In some ways, chaebols are a lot like American multinationals: economic behemoths with heavy influence. But, in part due to the way they grew and the state's role in fostering them as national symbols, perhaps as well as some Confucian cultural influence, they operate in some ways like family businesses. And they're treated as such by many employees and by South Korean consumers. According to a 2005 article on chaebols in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, "Korean consumers have a strong attachment to chaebols with which they associate quality and, in turn, trust," with the chaebols serving as a kind of extension of Confucian ideals of the family. That means consumer loyalty to the brand but also brand responsibility for the consumer: hence, bowing to ask forgiveness.
Tan Soo Kee, a scholar at the University of Michigan who studies the intersection of business and culture in South Korea, has written that ideal business executives are expected to be "paternalistic." This isn't purely a good thing – workers are expected to obey their managers as children obey their father, something that few Americans would likely embrace, and it hardens South Korea's glass ceiling for female workers – but it also implies a boss's responsibility for the well-being of his or her (usually his) workers, as well as his customers.
That sense of corporate responsibility to consumers may also partly be a result of the way South Korea's chaebols grew up: developed to feel an obligation to serve the state.
"At this company, profit is not our only motive," Ken Hong, the communications director of Korean electronics giant LG, told the New Yorker's Nicholson Baker for a recent story. "It's also about creating opportunities through growth. The government sets targets each year for how much they'd like the workforce to grow, and we do what we can to accommodate." Every company says it creates jobs and grows the economy, but Hong was saying it a little differently. "Koreans in general don't have a problem taking guidance from the government," he said. "It's a factor in our success."
That sense of responsibility and shared mission helps explain not just why an executive would bow to his consumers, but why consumers would not only expect but gratefully receive such an apology. On social media, many South Koreans seemed eager to defend or sympathize with Asiana and its leadership, even before its president officially apologized.