How to survive a drinking session in Korea is the title perforce and not my title of choice. Anthony Bourdain travels to Korea for the season five premiere of “Parts Unknown” and teases the segment with that title on CNN’s website.
Here is an abbreviated, in consideration of my reader’s time and attention span, sampling of the original article.
Hoesik is the Korean tradition of eating and drinking together
(CNN)Most companies in South Korea have hoesik at least once a month and sometimes every week.
Literally, this means dinner with co-workers.
In practice, it means official eating/drinking fests involving multiple rounds of alcohol at multiple venues.
For the foreign business traveler, using foreignness as an excuse to bow out of the action only goes so far.
The pressure to participate is intense.
Drinking etiquette is the first thing you teach foreign guests,” says Bryan Do, a Korean-American director at the South Korean branch of a U.S. company.
“It was shocking when I first arrived in Korea.
“My boss was a graduate of Korea University [renowned for its hardy drinking culture] and at my first hoesik, we started out with everyone filling a beer glass with soju, and downing it on the spot. That was just the beginning.”
CNN’s piece continues with, “for Koreans, drinking is considered a way to get to know what someone is really like. ‘I didn’t really like it in the beginning,’ says Charles Lee, a Korean-Canadian who came to Seoul to work for a South Korean company. ‘I was like, Why are you making me drink something when I don’t want to? But once I understood the meaning behind it, I appreciated it more.’ ”
The article notes that “drinking is such a big part of Korean life that Seoul traffic is said to correspond with the city’s drinking culture. Mondays are a big night for hoesik, so there are fewer cars during evening rush hour, as most office workers leave them at work so they can go drinking. Tuesdays are a rest day, while Wednesday and Thursday nights are also big nights for company drinking. Fridays have the worst evening traffic, as everyone is taking their cars home to use with their families over the weekend.”
Finally, the author offers these seven (edited for length, see original article for complete context) rules:
1. Know the hierarchy
Koreans always identify the “higher” person in the relationship, and defer to them accordingly. Even someone just a year older is afforded a language of respect, though age is always superseded by a higher position.
2. Show respect
It’s considered rude for anyone to have an empty glass. If a senior person is pouring — this usually pertains to hard liquor only — others shouldn’t drink until someone has poured the senior a shot.
After all glasses are full, everyone says “Gunbae!” and chugs — usually “one-shotting” the entire glass in one go. While downing alcohol, you should turn your body away from senior figures so that your body visually blocks your drinking action from your senior.
3. Use two hands
Always hold bottles or shot glasses with both hands. By raising your glass or pouring alcohol with one hand, you are establishing yourself as a senior person. If you’re not, well, you’ve just breached protocol.
4. Do some research
It’s always a good idea to find out people’s drinking habits beforehand. …Hoesik usually involves changing venues for a different type of alcohol — i.e., round one is dinner, accompanied by beer, round two is soju, round three is for whiskey, and so on.
5. ‘No’ means bad things
Unless you have an airtight reason, refusing alcohol is considered a mood killer and deemed rude. Sorry, but “I don’t like soju” doesn’t qualify as a good reason not to punish your liver. Neither would “I’ve been on the wagon for three years.”
In fact, unless you’re pregnant or already puking, what might be a “good reason” not to imbibe elsewhere often won’t fly here.
6. Flex your vocal cords
…Koreans love singing, as evidenced by the country’s staggering number of karaoke bars, as well as the rush of audition programs on Korean television. Your companions won’t rest until you sing.
7. Use the black knight or black rose as a last resort
If you simply cannot take any more, you can call a black knight (male) or a black rose (female) to your rescue. This entails a person of your choosing drinking your glass for you, but it also means they get a wish. As in, you might soon wish you’d just taken that last shot as you’re spelling your name out with your butt in front of your client.
(Anthony Bourdain missed out on the real ratings grabber: the after-party ;-))
For those of us who have been here for any length of time, we’ve at some point bumped into, if not against, Korea’s hoesik business culture. I am still incredulous and try not to judge, but I can’t resist:
Sorry, but “I don’t like soju” doesn’t qualify as a good reason not to punish your liver. Neither would “I’ve been on the wagon for three years.”
Pressuring an admitting and recovering alcoholic to drink? Really? (Unfortunately, I know the answer.)
I have worked with several of Korea’s top companies, and no one in upper management has ever asked me. If I could, however, tell them one thing, I would tell them that their top young talent (by virtue of their degrees, positions, and matriculation in my training classes) tell me that if they could quit the company, they would. Their cited reason: the company’s drinking culture is ruining their health, if not “killing” them.
Perhaps I should go out on hoesik so I can tell them.