So you think you’re ready for the Korean drinking business culture? Think again
In Seoul, drinking is the glue that binds businesses and after-hours “boardroom” drinking is a ritualized activity.
A noisy Thursday night in Gangnam Seoul, and Jimmy, the visiting VP from the U.S. is accompanied by a herd of suits and ties towards a shabby restaurant owned by an old lady.
Couple of days ago, back in LA, he would have headed straight home after work. But today he finds himself squeezed tightly in a black Hyundai with his Korean co-workers trying their best to ask him his blood-type and age in broken English. He desperately looks for his translator but he is told that he is squished in a different car with people in his ranks.
Upon arrival, the Director Lee shouts something in Korean and everyone shifts their body towards the exit with VP Choi pushing back signaling him to get off the car. As Jimmy enter the restaurant, he is escorted to a private room with tables. ‘It seems nice’ he thinks, but then realize that something is missing. Where are the chairs?
Amid Jimmy trying to figure out what is going on, the CEO takes a seat on the floor at the center of the assorted long table and starts assigning seats to everyone. “Jimmy, here” says the CEO, pointing to a space right in front of him. He sits down and the translator, a young bilingual staff at the company rushes towards the seat right next to him.
The CEO introduces Jimmy to everyone and gives him a drink, demanding Jimmy to call him “Hyungnim”. Hyungnim means “Big Brother” says the translator, urging him to take the glass of soju with who hands and turn his body to drink the alcohol.
Jimmy says “gamsa-habnida hyungnim” meaning thank you Big Brother, and everyone starts to clap and chucks down the soju in front of them.
With this initiation, people started conversations with each other about work, life, and the food in front of them. At least that is what the translator said. Jimmy noticed the poor kid didn’t even have a single bite of food yet because he was keeping track of every conversation around him so he could translate. Jimmy tells him to eat, the kid glances at the CEO and starts eating. What could go wrong? Jimmy thought to himself, not knowing he was about to experience a whole lot of shouting, preaching, and awkward silences. The translator tells him not to worry because it is NORMAL!
Knowing a Drinking Culture
This scenario is fictional, but it’s neither as ridiculous or as farfetched as you might think.
If you are doing business with Korea, it’s only a matter of time before you become the next Jimmy.
There’s great reward to knowing the secrets in any drinking business culture. Knowing about it in advance will better prepare you for such occasions and increase the probability of your success with many Koreans.
Here’s some life-saving tips so you don’t have to dread the moment:
Respect the Hweshik!
To understand this somewhat bizarre culture, we need to first consider the origin and development of the Hweshik or Hoesik (회식), which is the Korean word for “dinner with coworkers”. You can learn more about the origins of Hweshiks in my other article.
Many employees (usually the younger generations) in Korea prefer the Hweshik in the form of visiting a nice restaurant. In reality however, you WILL drink. On the contrary of the positive intentions of a Hweshik, it is often used by Korean executives to test their subordinates true intentions; to figure out whether the person sitting next to them is a friend or foe.
On the bright side, there are ways in which Hweshik can help. Since executives also forced to join in, subordinates see this as a chance to show “oneself” and causally bond with executives. Besides, a little bit of alcohol provides venues to relieve stress after a tough week. It provides opportunities among people in companies to bond with their execs and could potentially escalate their future career path. Or tank it…
Workplace Drinks are Normal.
South Koreans work hard. They claim to have one of the world’s longest working hours and that kind of pressure doesn’t come without serious consequences.
Many faced enormous pressure from bosses to perform, and are forced to sacrifice their social time. Hence the team is forced to have “off-time” with their bosses and it’s not uncommon to have dinner as an extension of their working day.
Korea is still heavily a male-dominant society, a military-style leadership still lives. Korea still has mandatory two year military service and if you speak to the locals, your soon learn that most teens are ready for what seems to be a vacation in comparison to their brutal high-school experience. The legal drinking age is around 20. Also it’s worth mentioning, that the Korean aging count is different from Western countries since they count a year from the first day of life. That said, the legal drinking age is not strictly enforced in South Korea so everyone gets conditioned at an early start.
Understanding all this before starting to play drinking games with the team may not save your liver, but will give you insights into some typical military characteristics. Your boss is no different from a military company commander or general. His totalitarian authority is very hard to sway and not taken lightly.
Know the Drinking Etiquette in Korea
“il bul, sam so, o ui, chil gwa”
Literally, means “Never stop at one, three is not enough, five is just right, and seven is too much”.
This is an old Korean saying implying that starting from the moment you sit at the table to the moment you pour, offer, receive, and drink your alcohol, you must be aware to keep your manners and be considerate.
Like the French drinking wine, drinking alcohol is an essential part of a Korean’s life. Alcohol (mostly referring to Soju) is an inevitable factor when engaging in Korean business Hweshiks. Along with Korean Confucianism culture which emphasizes the courtesy, there are alcohol manners people new to Korea should be aware of. Understanding the drinking etiquettes, therefore, is one of the best ways to understand and win a Korean’s heart.
Here are the critical standards for your business soiree:
Know the Seating Rules
Before we go any further into the drinking etiquettes, we need consider the concept of Sangseok, which basically means “the seat of honor”. Unlike western customs, which usually gives the seat of honor to the guest of the occasion, the seat is given to the person with the most authority. Usually, this person is the person with the highest rank, the most age, or the most expertise. These people are often referred to as ‘Gab’, meaning the person with the upper hand.
Sangseok within a corporate dinner is usually the warm spot where the back is against the wall with the entrance and exit is in their direct line of sight. The ‘Gab’ usually finds their way to the seat, however it is best to offer them the seat if they haven’t taken the seat yet. Giving them the seat is an act of showing respect.
The First Critical Pour
The golden rule is “never decline the first glass of the evening.” It is considered a norm to drink the first glass of alcohol even though you have a very low tolerance for alcohol. The start of the company dinner is usually signaled with a toast from the ‘Gab’, followed by people wishing good will to each other. Missing out on this action will cause an awkwardness that will ruin the occasion.
Offering & Receiving Drinks
Now that the first glass is out of the way, the company dinner has officially started. Being timid is never helpful at this situation, and it is best if a subordinate offers a drink first. However, it is always considered a manner to ask for permission before you pour the drink.
When offering a drink, you must always use your right hand to grab the alcohol container. Using your left hand to offer a drink is considered rude, at it means either you have negative emotions towards the person you are offering the drink to, or you are offering the drink against your will. When offering to your superior, hold the container with your right hand, align your posture so it is easier for the recipient to receive your drink and use both hands. Your left hand should be slightly touching the bottom of the container or your right hand. Standing up to offer the drink is an act of showing great respect. On the other hand, you may use one hand to offer the drink to someone in equal position or your subordinates.
However, pouring the alcohol in an empty glass without the recipient’s consent is considered misbehaving. If the recipient of the drink is far away, you may just put your left hand on your right chest instead of your right hand.
Do not overreact! When offered a drink from your superior, act respectfully. Just a simple thank you with a respectful posture will do the trick. Use two hands to hold your glass and make sure your glass is empty. If there is remaining alcohol from the previous round, drink your remaining alcohol first before you hold up the glass. Make sure you hold up the glass until your glass is filled.
Now that you have been officially received, it is time to drink. And of course, there are rules in drinking your alcohol too. When your superior pours you a drink, thank them for offering it to you. When you clink glasses, make sure that the top of your glass is lower than that of your superiors, and when clinking with multiple glasses, place your glass at a position appropriate of your rank. Turn your body away and hide your glass so it is invisible from your superiors when you drink your drink. Bottoms up!
Leaving the Party Early
Never leave in the middle of the party. Leaving before seniors finishes Hweshik is regarded as rude behavior, especially when one leave the place without any prior notice. Some leave the place when one’s boss or senior seems drunk. Surprisingly however, they remember such incident and give them bad impression. If there is an emergency going on, it is courteous to give reasonable and convincible reasons for leaving and try to directly say goodbye with proper notice.
Knowing the Hierarchy
Korea is based on Confucianism culture which puts a high emphasis on hierarchy and act of respect. This is why Koreans ask ages when they meet new people. However, in business relations, position within the hierarchy is regarded more important than age. So, be prepared to match a person with its position in the company and avoid offending your superior even though he or she looks younger. Showing respect to your subordinate that is younger than you will define you as a very respectful person, and they will reward you with better cooperation and sub-ordinance. You can never be too careful. Some research on your department’s, or more importantly, your boss’s drinking habits beforehand so you know what to expect. If you are expecting a big night for drinking, make sure you prepare for it.
Acting Respectful When Playing Dumb
Not only knowing the hierarchy but act accordingly is important as well. One thing very unfamiliar would be using two hands for showing respect. Koreans at an early age is educated to receive things with two hands when elderly or person above your age gives something. Otherwise gives an impression of rude and uneducated person. Same applies to when you are offered a glass during a Hweshik. Receive a glass with two hands and turn your body away from the senior as an act of respect.
Casual Conversation & Taboos
As a foreigner at the table, you’re allowed some leniency. Many Koreans understand and at times apologies for their complexities. On many occasions I’ve been reminded of the rules and have minders keeping an eye on my missed moments.
As your slowly losing the battle of your senses… there’s some tips to avoid awkward situations:
Most professionals agree that it is not advisable to mention North Korea unless your hosts insists. Listen rather than provide your opinion on the subject first. This advice holds true in most countries at war, and make no mistake, the Koreans are still at war.
Japan is also still a sore subject, do your audience research first. I recently had an experience where millennial coworkers opened up regarding the issue of Japan. As with much of the younger generation, they seem less concerned with the past. But even so there was tension brewing as the conversation quickly worked its way to personal stories of ancestral tragedies. Not proper unless there’s business context.
In any alcohol-fueled meeting, things are going to get noisy and plan to speak up when addressed.
During your Hweshik, there guaranteed to be a crazy situation where the boss shouts something and the tone serious. Yeah, serious moments happen when the boss gets drunk! So don’t get too loaded and watch out for the obvious traps, act like the others if possible and keep vigilant. Try not to be embarrassed and catch the situation wittily. You would see people around boss nodding their heads expressing a consent. Even though you do not understand the situation, try to act likewise which would give an impression of professionalism as a businessman. Ask what is going on afterwards to your closest colleague when the boss is out of sight.
Formal cheers are expected, so prepare something in advance if possible.
You might be called or have to call the boss Hyungnim or (Hyung if your informal), “Older Brother” is very typical colloquial bonding language. Similarly, but with more depth, to how Californians using brau. It’s used to address the bonding moment and usually comes from the most senior member of the company.
Prepare Your Body… Literally.
Prepare those hangover drinks before the Hweshik, where excessive drinking is sure to happen.
Personally, my first visit to Seoul ended in disaster. Finding myself hurting for days from un-conditioning myself. The Koreans are now famous for spawning a booming anti-hangover industry.
These hangover drinks scattered in every convenience store across Korea for a price ranging from $3~$5. So I recommend joining this bandwagon and try use one of their conditioning drinks. These drinks claim to help metabolize the alcohol and more quickly recover from your long night out. Also, no matter how bad your night gets, remember you have to get back to work the following morning.
It’s expected that you remain sharp the next day, since most bosses will have no mercy and consider it poor form if not there on time and ready to rock-n-roll.
One thing worth mentioning, Koreans eat with food. Hweshiks usually starts with dinner accompanied by the usual accoutrements of beer and soju, and if you survive the first round you go to the next, in which the strength of the alcohol increases accordingly.
Challenges, Drinking Games & Karaoke
While you’re drinking it is highly likely you’ll encounter a “challenge” or verbal agreement. The Korean’s take challenges very seriously. A routine way of passing time.
Depending on how casual things get, or if you’re attending a larger team off-site, expect serious drinking games. You should research the different your own culture’s games, just in case they ask you to lead.
And yes. In all honestly, expect Karaoke as the finale to your evening.
In many cases, you will find yourself holding a mic with all the Koreans cheering you to sing. Depending on the organization that you are working with, this may happen during the dinner or during the third or fourth round. Don’t be shy. They are not expecting you to be the Michael Jackson of this era. Be sure to have the courage to sing in front of an intoxicated crowd. Though the idea might be frightening, you may be surprised to find out how much fun you can have in this occasion.
“No” is Unacceptable (in most cases)
Almost everyone I speak to about Korea culture agrees that saying saying “No” is generally a bad thing. Unlike other culture, Koreans do not directly say ‘no’ for refusal since it’s regarded as a rude behavior. They tend to talk backhandedly and try not to offend the counterparty’s mood by refusing. Rather than blurting out no for an answer, it is best to start with ‘yes’, and then add a ‘however’ to work your way to politely refusing by suggesting an alternative.
Same applies to a Hweshik especially when you are not in a mood of drinking. Unless you’re medically incapable, or religion has a say, then please consider the consequences of not participating in this holly business event. Try to take the first cheers with everyone, together since it’s likely going to be in your honor. At the very least you should accept the glass when offered and not drink it.
Then, please don’t get caught pouring your sujo into the neighboring plants during a business dinner. I’d imagine the high-end restaurant you’re in won’t find it amusing. Instead, keep your glass half full and never let it be seen empty or someone will feel obligated to refill it. Also try drinking very very slowly and when not doing “one shots, then sipping helps.
There’s plenty of great articles on ‘how to pretend to drink’. There’s a lot of ways to play along and be a part of the festivities, even if it means acting a little. This practice has some legs in Korea and i later found a number of my Koreans friends have told me they pretended to drink on many occasions and consider this pretense a normal option.
As a last resort use a proxy drinker to help you out. This was offered to me on recent occasions. It’s proposed usually by someone who offers can handle their drink. Here the designated drinker agrees to help you with the unwanted drinking. Korean college students have been using this technique during their drinking games (perhaps in preparation for real-life). What differs in a business setting is that most cases this exchange is done discretely and with little notice. If you plan on using a volunteer drinker, sometimes referred to as a black knight (male) or a black rose (female) then make sure you’re in sync about the strategy. Last thing you want happening is drowning your knight.
Go for a smoke break. Take advantage of the circumstances where people go for smoking in a group. At this point, even though you are not a smoker, try to go along with them. This gives you a break in the middle of a heavy drinking environment. Also, while on a smoke break, you could have a rare chance to hear personal thought of your business partner as well as some valuable information because Koreans tend to reveal their inner thought and feeling more openly while smoking. If the senior or boss smokes, try to lit a fire for him or her so that you can win a favor. It is a courtesy to cover the tip of the cigarette so that the senior does not see a fire. When the senior or boss offers a fire, act likewise.
Doing it Right
Confused? Of course you are! These insane cultural rules are really hard to get perfect even as a Korean. Nobody gets it perfect and as a foreigner, we get immense points just to try. Trying to understand everything can be challenging, however, get it right the first time and you will be a few steps closer to a successful deal with fellow Hyungnims in Korea.
Photos courtesy of ©Serge Kajirian & ©Henrick Kim (2016).