Before we indulge into the significance of meal sharing in Korean culture, these business tips might spark your interests: how to address counterparts appropriately in a meeting (click) or how to exchange business cards (here) in Korea.
Koreans love to stick their noses into others’ business when it comes to eating. We often ask “Have you eaten?” instead of “hello” as a greeting. As such, eating well is a serious business in Korea. (You can experience a local home meal with DARAMJI: Mums know best)
When you are invited to a dinner by a Korean business counterpart, it is a cordial gesture to build a relationship outside of a meeting room. Having a meal together is an opportunity to get to know and understand each other in relatively casual and friendly manners. Sometimes behind-the-scene talks for the important decisions are discussed in such setting. This is why the group dinner, or Hweshik in Korean which literally means group eating, is regarded as an extended working hour and an essential part of Korean working culture. Hence, it may be helpful to have your evening time readily available during your Korean business trip.
It’s quite different from a Western networking party where people mingle around with a cocktail on one hand in fancy evening attires, gracefully gliding through the room. Hweshik culture often involves a whole team sitting around a big table and sharing drinks and food together. The dinner menu is usually pre-arranged; the long-beloved item is Korean BBQ accompanied by alcohols like beer, Soju (Korean distilled spirits), or two-in-one called “bomb drink”. Even Hulk enjoys Hweshik as you can see Mark Ruffalo doing thumbs-up below!
But it doesn’t get that casual even when people are drunken. Yes, Confucian hierarchical culture plays on the dinner table as well.* Toasting is a privilege as well as a duty for the most senior person to prepare an impressive slogan to cheer. (You can google countless cheat sheets for a creative toast, seriously.) As for the drinking etiquette, juniors are supposed to fill up when the seniors’ cups are empty with two hands. Whenever a senior pours alcohol to a junior, it is polite to hold the cup with two hands and drink bottom-up right away. While drinking, juniors should look the other way from the seniors. It sounds funny but drinking well can be a winning social skill in Korea.
Hweshik is usually more than just drinking and eating together; in fact, it’s merely the first round, or Il-cha. Depending on the company culture or the boss’s preference, the second round might be singing in Karaoke or drinking more in a different place. And there goes third, fourth and so on and on.
I could write a whole new post regarding the toxic side of the get-togethers, but thankfully Hweshik culture is changing to not force attending nor drinking alcohol (too much). As a business traveller from out of Korea, all you need to care about are:
Make full use of the opportunity to ask a tricky question or talk in-depth.
Hope you enjoy the festive drinking & dining with fellow Koreans!