Going out for dinner and having drinks with co-workers on a regular basis is a must in Korean corporations. This kind of informal bonding with co-workers is considered just as important as the work itself and is why Korean companies will happily foot the bill for any staff related drinking. This type of staff drinking also entails a variety of customs and etiquette. I have done my best to compile all that I know about Korean drinking culture and hopefully this guide can be used by business travellers and foreigners alike. This is more than the just a basic guide and I will cover some neat tricks and tips to ensure that at your next Hoesik (회식 / Staff Drinks), you will impress all of your Korean co-workers.
If you are planning on going on your first trip to Korea then you better acquaint yourself with the national drink – soju (소주). Soju is 16-20% rice liquor (think watered down vodka) and is the staple of any Korean workers’ diet, for better or worse… What is unique about soju is that at 16-20% (new weaker varieties are 16%) alcohol, it is strong enough to get you drunk in a short period of time but weak enough to enjoy with a full meal. Most likely, you and fellow colleagues will go to a local Korean Barbecue joint after work or business meeting and will be immediately served soju and/or beer.
Most companies start with a round of ‘SoMaek‘ – literally soju and beer (or “Soju Bombs”) – which is a small amount of beer with a half shot of soju, usually served in a regular sized glass. The regular sized glass would look more like a typical water glass to foreigners. Korean beer is traditionally weak; beer enthusiasts around the world will agree that Koreans are yet to make a decent drop. Its weakness in strength and flavour resulted in office workers mixing it with soju to get the desired taste.
Korean staff dinners, and going out in general, is done in what they call “-Cha / 차”, or rounds. The first round for example will be the first location of the night, typically the aforementioned Korean barbecue restaurant. The first round is attended by all members and will usually last between an hour to two hours. Koreans never like to stay in one place long and by changing venues they not only refresh the members and change the menu, it also gives a chance for other members to leave quietly and make an exit. Typically at the end of the first round, the group will congregate at the front of the restaurant. Those who plan to leave will thank the senior members and then make their way to the closest subway / bus stop. The remaining members will then move onto Ee-Cha (second round).
The second round is where the typical heavy drinking is done. The first round was full of interruptions and group ‘cheer’ ceremonies but now that you are at the second round, you will be a lot more tipsy and relaxed. Typically 2nd rounds will go to a SoolJip 술집 / Hof 호프; these places are the Korean equivalent to a bar that involves a full menu of drinking snacks with large tables / booths to accommodate the group.
The third/fourth round depending on the drinking ability of the group will either be another bar or the final destination for the night – a karaoke room (노래방). Now while these karaoke rooms are not explicitly allowed to serve drinks, they will almost always have beer and soju on hand. Usually they will serve you some beers with a fruit platter and some other easy to prepare snacks. The common time for a karaoke room is 1 hour and it is your chance to begin sobering up. This is the time to hit the water and get up, sing, dance, and enjoy yourself. Belting out some Bon Jovi does wonders to getting the alcohol out of your system (figuratively speaking of course).
After the noraebang has died down, is usually when most, if not all, the senior members are completely drunk and they will either catch a taxi or call a proxy driver (대리운전) – a service in which a paid driver comes and drives you home in your own car. As a junior member of the group you can expect for the drunk senior members to give you some cash at this point in there drunken state. This cash is for you to catch your own taxi home and ensure you didn’t have any cost incurred for the night. This is also their way of looking after the ‘junior’ members who earn less and have stayed until the end of the night as a show of loyalty and perseverance. One time a drunk customer gave me $10 US. Surprised, I told him that I was not American, to which he responded “It’s all the same just take it”.
Opening a Bottle
If it’s your first office drinks then it’s unlikely you will get a chance to open the soju bottle as it will already have been claimed by a low ranking staff that has begun preparing the aforementioned SoMaek for the group. However, in cases that the opportunity to open the bottle arises, I will explain how to do it like a pro. Although, just be aware that this is for soju only, beer is just opened the regular (boring) way.
I like to call it the Soju Swirl, Pop and Tap – first grab the bottle and proceed to SWIRL it with some force. This will create a tornado effect in the centre of the bottle – it looks pretty cool. This technique is done more by younger people. Older generations who just want to get down to drinking will simply shake the bottle a few times and begin to open it.
Now before opening you can hit the base of the soju bottle with either the palm of your hand or with your elbow, which will create a Pop sound – do it as many times as you like to create the sound. After opening the bottle you can then proceed to Tap the neck of the bottle with your fingers spread.
Don’t throw away the cap – we will need that for the Games section below.
Here is a great video that shows what I am talking about.
Pouring and Receiving
In short, there are three acceptable ways to hold the bottle when you pour. Firstly, if you’re pouring for your boss or an elder, you should hold it with both hands. For someone who is of a similar status as you, you can hold the bottle with your right hand and support your forearm with your left hand. Lastly, you can hold the bottle just with your right hand if it’s someone younger than you or a very close friend.
The same rules apply for holding your glass when someone is pouring for you.
It is your job to ensure the person sitting opposite you always has a full glass; although as is the case in most circumstances, it gets to a certain point in the night when some of the heavier drinkers will throw out etiquette and simply pour themselves a drink. Now in these cases there are a few options:
- Quickly grab the bottle off the person before they pour and then proceed to pour it for them with the above mentioned etiquette. Don’t be shy, they want you to take the bottle from them and pour!
- If you can’t reach the bottle then grab the glass and hold it for them while they pour.
- If you have completely missed it and they have proceeded to pour their own drink then a cute way of saying sorry is to point at the glass they have just poured and say ‘Toong! / Tung! (퉁)’ I am not sure of the meaning but it’s used as a word that appeases the mistake of letting someone pour their own drink.
When drinking with older Korean staff and even more so with a more conservative style of company you can expect to be given an empty glass by a superior. In this situation a co-worker of high status will offer you their empty glass (not your own glass), which you should accept with two hands and then proceed to receive the shot of soju and drink following the etiquette explained below in the drinking section. Once you have finished your shot you return the glass to the senior co-worker and then proceed to pour him a shot following the etiquette outlined above. Sound complicated? Don’t worry you will get the hang of it as you may be “offered” to drink with various co-workers throughout the night (hopefully you don’t care about sharing soju glasses!)
Expert Tip – When pouring any drink, either Soju or beer, make sure the drink label is facing away from the person drinking and covered by your preferred hand. So in the case of a right hander, your right hand will be covering the label facing away from the person you are pouring for and your left hand should be under the bottle at the base of the neck as you pour.
On occasion you may want to make a round of ‘SoMaek’ for your table. When making a round of SoMaek, you forgo the above mentioned formalities and proceed to pour drinks for everyone. To get the measurements correct there is an easy trick involved in pouring out a glass of Somaek. To measure out the right amount of soju, simply place one soju glass within another then pour soju into the top glass until it reaches the line created by the outer glass. Pour this into the beer glass (which we described earlier as a smallish water glass) and then proceed to pour the beer (or vice versa). While, some will say that it has to be beer then soju, others will say the opposite! Traditionally there is no head (foam) at the top of a glass of SoMaek so make sure you avoid creating too much froth! Simply fill the glass with beer until ¾’s full; there should be roughly enough space to fit two thumbs between the beer line and the top of the glass. Now that you have poured out the SoMaek you can pass it around your table.
Now be aware that it is customary to drink (skull) your first drink in “one shot”. The form of “cheers” will also give a hint as to whether a skull is expected.
Cheers! And Drinking
If you are drinking with your boss or someone of a higher social rank than you, it is polite to either turn away from the high ranking person or put your hand up to cover your glass while taking a drink. If you are surrounded by high ranking workers then motion to turn around and face away from the table to take your drink.
When doing a “cheers” and clinking your glasses with other people, try to do it a little lower than those around you if they are of higher status; you will notice that younger people and those of lower status at companies will make a B-line to have their glass at the bottom. It’s also not common to stare into people’s eyes when doing cheers. Also remember at this time to keep one hand underneath the glass holding forearm. Similar to when you received a drink to once again show respect when doing a ‘cheers’ clink of glasses.
When doing a group cheers there are a range of different expressions and phrases that you are likely to hear.
“…Wehaiyo / …위하여”
This phrase refers to the toasting to a topic like health; company success; a co-worker’s promotion etc. In this Korean structure the topic to be toasted is placed in front of the phrase ‘Wehaiyo’. For example, to toast to our health would he ‘Konkang Wehaiyo/ 건강을 위하여” where Konkang means health. This structure is the most common used by Korean companies and the stock cheers chant of many company workers in Korea is to simply place the company name before ‘Wehaiyo’, eg. “Samsung Wehaiyo” or “to / for Samsung!”.
Generally when you first sit down to a formal company dinner there will be a senior staff member, who after the drinks is prepared (typically a round of somaek), will stand up and say a few words regarding the reason for the gathering – one example could be the welcoming of a new staff member. Throughout the night this process will continue and each staff member will be expected at some point to stand up and say a few words, which will then follow with a ‘cheers’ ceremony. Now what is used for the cheers depends on the toaster and their personal preference – it’s a chance to show some creativity and/or have a little fun with the topic. Most workers will stick with the common formula of toasting towards their health or the company. When the staff members say they will do the cheers, they will often give instructions on how to respond. For example, they will say the topic of which they are toasting (“Samsung:” for instance) and they will then ask the other staff to respond with a “wehaiyou” – this kind of formula ensures all staff say Wehaiyou at the same time in full voice (think of when you do a huddle break in sport). Now this can occur either standing up or sitting down depending on the location, just follow the guide of others at the time.
Fighting / 화이팅
Koreans use the word ‘fighting’ as literally “come on” – a sort of rousing support call and has nothing to do with actual fighting. Chinese students will understand this as “JiaYou”. Now the same as above with Weihayo applies: you place the topic which you will cheer to in front of the word “fighting”. Now, obviously this time there are some things that just won’t apply – you couldn’t use the above health example because “health fighting” just doesn’t make sense. Once again, most workers will stick with the easy formula of saying “(company name) and FIGHTING”! They will follow the same pattern above in Wehaiyou where the toaster will say the company name and all staff will respond with the word “fighting” while moving in to clink their glasses together.
Gunbae / 건배
Gunbae is the stock standard call of cheers and is used on its own in a variety of situations. Typically while in large groups they will exclusively use “wehaiyou” or “fighting” for large collective cheers, they will use gunbae for smaller groups and more reserved circumstances. You can expect your table to have a few cheers of their own away from the entire staff dinner group. A member of the group will simply just raise their glass and say “gunbae”
Zzan / 짠
The least formal of the phrases, Zzan is the onomatopoeia for the sound of glasses clinking together. This informal cheer is used only in casual surroundings with small groups. Just to be safe, you may want to just save this phrase for when the group is really drunk and has shrunken in size or when you are out drinking with friends / other younger co-workers.
Expert Tip – So you want to make a good impression, don’t want to get too drunk and stay till the end of the drinking session? Although, it can be tough to maintain yourself when you are force fed shot after shot, luckily there are ways to avoid drinking without letting any of your co-workers know. It’s often a virtue to be considered a ‘good drinker’ and the longer you stay at the dinner/drinks the more chances you will have to bond, find out valuable information about co-workers and the business, develop good relationships with your bosses and earn a good reputation. To ensure I was always there at the end to help my boss into a taxi I used to secretly spit out drinks. Now almost every Korean barbecue or soju-selling establishment in Korea will have the traditional metallic cups for water – save this tactic for later in the night but grab one of those cups and pour in a little water to establish that you are drinking water. Now after having a shot of soju it’s common for Koreans to have some cider (sprite) or water as a chaser. It’s simple, don’t swallow your shot of soju, immediately grab the metallic water cup and proceed to spit the soju into it while pretending to drink from it. Of course you will still have the taste in your mouth and you will need another cup of water to help you begin sobering up but I have never had any issues with this technique and it has saved me from drinking an extra 5-7 shots in a session.
The Singing and Games
There are literally too many to list and to explain but luckily the internet can provide the perfect resource to explain a handful (yes 10 is only a handful) of popular games you might encounter. Note that people in the workplace or generally over the age of 30 are not likely to want to play games or part-take in the songs that follow!
Extra Tips – Drinking “Fine”
So you had an extra-long meeting and you have arrived at the hoesik a little late? No problem but be ready to consume 벌술 an abbreviation of 벌금 술, which is literally a ‘drinking fine’. Since you have arrived late and your co-workers have already been drinking for a while, you need to ‘catch-up’ to the same level of tipsy-ness to ensure that everyone is on the same level. In my experience this ‘fine’ was usually 3 shots at once. Now a neat trick to serving this is to place the soju glasses one on top of the other, using the flat metal chopsticks – on hand at any Korean restaurant – to keep each soju glass level. Once you have stacked them up one by one and they are all level then you can begin pouring. As the top glass (3rd level) begins to overflow it will fill up the glass below and then again for the bottom glass. Once it’s complete it’s time for the three shots to be drunk by the ‘offending’ late co-worker. If you are drinking with friends or with co-workers, this is a neat little trick to do and will definitely earn you some expert knowledge points as well as a reputation as a ‘good’ drinker which in Korea is more important than being a good worker.
Black Knight and Black Rose (흑기사 / 흑장미)
In Korean 흑기사 (“Black Knight”), this word would mean someone (generally a guy) who volunteers to take a drink for another person (generally a girl). For a man it’s 흑기사 (heuk-gi-sa, “dark knight”) or 흑장미 (heuk-jang-mi, “black rose”) for women. One can ask someone to be their black knight/rose or someone can offer to do it, but once you’ve done it, you’re theirs for the rest of the night. If you ask someone and they refuse then you have to take two drinks.
Paying the bill and Going home
Going-Dutch traditionally does not exist in Korea, although this is changing among younger generations. If you are reading this article then you are more than likely to be a guest at a company dinner / meeting so relax, the bill will almost always be on the company. As mentioned earlier, at the later rounds it is likely that a senior manager or other senior members will foot the bill for that round. If you are looking to entertain some important business partners then be aware of this custom. A good tip is to take care of the bill just before the announcement of moving place, feign a trip to the toilet and on the way take care of the bill. This also applies for social meetings as well with the older member of the social group likely to pay for the first round and then another member of the group for subsequent rounds. It’s all about paying it forward so don’t forget all the free meals and drinks you enjoyed when you become the senior member of a group.
Now if you are a junior member at a company then you will be expected to stay until the end of the night and part of this expectation is that you take care of your company ‘seniors’ who are likely to be too blind drunk to get home; this involves helping them catch a taxi or calling up ‘대리운전’ – proxy drivers for drunk people. Don’t despair though, once you have helped your manager or other senior to get in a cab then there is a chance they’ll put a 10,000 won bill in your hand or pocket and tell you to catch your own taxi home. So other than your time you are unlikely to have any costs from a night out.
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