Three Ways Meeting Koreans for Drinks Will Promote Your Business in Korea

We’re Not Talking Coffee Here, Either.

By KBC Creator Steven S. Bammel

From the Korea Business Advisor column in the December 2011 issue of Seoul Magazine.

2011122234121In Korea, drinking and business often go hand-in-hand. This much is well-known, but the reasons behind it are often not apparent to Westerners. In fact, social/business drinking is deeply embedded in the culture (within male culture that is; for better or for worse, Western women doing business in Korea will not be able to experience the same dynamics of this male bonding ritual).

Fortunately, there is some accommodation here for foreigners. As a non-Korean, you are not obligated to join the drinking if you absolutely don’t want to do so; Koreans understand that drinking in the West is more of a private thing and they will respect your decision not to partake.

I’ll also point out that drinking in Korea usually does not involve activities that you would be ashamed to tell your friends and family about back home, but sometimes it does. Keep in mind that you will not lose the business advantages of drinking by refusing to compromise your morals.

1. Drinking gives you the chance to build frienships.

In Korea, the concept of “jeong” is big. It’s a word that Koreans consider unique to their country and roughly explained, it refers to the sharing of concern for one another and emphasizes the Korean view of people in society being mutually interdependent on each other.

The Korean eating and drinking rituals are full of this “jeong” concept, which is symbolized in Korean minds by eating from shared dishes at the table, the pouring of alcohol into the glasses of others but never into one’s own cup and the constant push to eat and drink more.

Korean’s will question how much “jeong” a person has if the office environment is the only place where business is done and discussed. Indeed, it’s outside the office that personal relationships are built, and friendships in Korea are all about expressing “jeong”.

2. Drinking builds mutual respect.

By putting in a full day of work, then going out drinking with your Korean counterparts in the evening and finally showing up ready for work bright and early the next morning, you’ll be sharing in the schedule that your new Korean friends follow. They will interpret this as an expression of respect for Korean culture and that you also know what it means to put in a full day of work.

This may seem trite, but it’s not. Many Korean men are proud of their all-day workday and respect others who do the same. Since relationships are so important to business in Korea, Korean businessmen view these social gathering as extensions of the business day, not as functions whose only value is in the enjoyment of the time spent.

P10606583. Drinking fosters the honest sharing of information.

In a social gathering, Koreans will want everyone to drink at generally the same rate. Some (particularly those whose faces turn red quickly) will stop before others, but if one person just refuses to drink from the get-go or is clearly not drinking their share, others generally will hold back on what they imbibe and the dinner discussion will be inhibited.

This is because drinking involves a certain degree of loss of control which leads to vulnerability, and Koreans will tell you, honesty. So if everyone isn’t keeping up, people will wonder what the person who’s not drinking has to hide.

On the other hand, with everyone drinking, you’ll find that communication becomes more open and business discussion flows in directions that it wouldn’t back in the office. It may seem hard to believe, but promises made over drinks can often be worth more, not less, than those made in the office.

In conclusion, like business cards, language proficiency, gift giving and others, drinking in business is one more tool available to you for building business relationships and you’ll do well to try to be part of it when in Korea.

For additional information on the following related topics and more, click here to visit the a dedicated page on Steven’s weblog:

  • Crash Course on Korea Business Success Strategies (Lesson #6 discusses drinking etiquette.)
  • Topic Central Page on Korea Business Central: Korean Business Savvy
  • Discussion on Korea Business Central: “What One World Would You Use to Represent Korea” (includes various explanations of the concept of “jeong”)
  • Photoblog post: “For a Ride Home, Call Zero-Three-One, Death-Death-Death-Death” (Explains the “alternate driver service”)
  • Photoblog post: “What’s Your Favorite Makgeolli?”
  • Other insights I didn’t have room to include in the article here.