When courting clients, one must be mindful of differences between business entertaining in Korea and entertaining in Western cultures. For example, many Korean businessmen tend to believe that they will get to know a business partner or colleague or customer better over a few drinks. It is common to be invited out after business hours. Bars are popular venues for business entertaining, particularly ‘karaoke’ bars where patrons are encouraged to sing along to recorded popular songs.
Some people may use drinking venues to resolve a conflict or close a difficult business deal. Be aware that comments and promises during entertainment can be taken seriously afterwards.
In a given group, there may be someone who encourages others to have another drink. However, there have been efforts to respect individual choices for those who don’t want to drink. Keeping your glass full and drinking slowly makes it less likely that another will be poured for you. Some foreigners and Koreans have been known to pour unwanted alcohol surreptitiously into a nearby plant or a cup. Public transportation or substitute drivers are recommended for drinkers.
Recently more Korean men have been conscious of health and younger Koreans have been mindful of drinking quality, not quantity. So wine has become a fashionable choice. Traditionally, respectable Korean women were expected to abstain from alcohol. This attitude has changed. However, as more women join the work force, different teambuilding or entertaining venues, such as going to a concert or theater, has been gaining popularity.
For non-drinkers, it’s OK to drink water or soda, but try to enjoy the camaraderie. Informal outings can be an important part of building relationship. If you just don’t want to drink at all, you may explain the reason, for example, you may say that you cannot drink alcohol for religious reasons or medical reasons.
If you don’t enjoy going out in the evening, you can gently ask your host where and to what kind of place they are going. You can choose not to join them, citing valid reasons, such as, you have more work to do at the hotel or need to contact your family members back home, etc.
The person of lower status, or the host of the event, will offer a glass to the most honoured person.
If the status or age difference is very great, the glass is offered with two hands. Or, you may try to support the right hand with the left.
The person receiving the glass, depending on his status, will also receive it with two hands or with the right supported by the left.
The giver then pours the alcohol into the glass held by the receiver.
After draining their glasses, some people practice giving them to another person. As the drinking continues, everyone is offered a glass, which is then filled. You may also fill your own glass. Don’t start drinking until everyone has been served.
Side dishes for drinking, known as ‘anjoo’, will be served along with the alcohol and may include dried beef, dried fish, nuts or even fruit. Some places offer an anjoo menu. At other establishments, anjoo is brought to your table even if not ordered, but even so it is not free of charge.
As an evening out progresses in Korea, some may be asked to sing solo. If you are asked to sing, don’t panic even if you cannot carry a tune. Just do your best and remain gracious. It will be useful to know a simple song, such as ‘You are my Sunshine.’
When you are invited to a meal by your business partner in Korea, try to accept the invitation. You can reciprocate it within a reasonable amount of time during your next visit.
Dinner is the largest meal of the day, and usually takes place between 7:00 and 9:00 p.m. If you are invited to a home, consider it a tremendous honour.
While it is common in other countries to extend dinner invitations to spouses, this is not the case when interacting with South Koreans. Business entertaining is often reserved for the parties directly involved in the business.
The person who extends the invitation is expected to pay for the meal. Regardless, a good-natured argument over who will pay is to be expected.
It is important to remove your shoes when entering a home or traditional restaurant with floor seating or a temple. If you see indoor slippers in a room, put them on. Position your shoes so that the toes are pointing away from the building. When putting your shoes back on, do not sit with your back toward the temple.
When you are invited to a home, don’t wander around and look into rooms such as the kitchen. Entertaining will be confined to a few select areas.
Eating at a low table, sitting on soft cushions set on the floor is common in Korean homes and restaurants. Men traditionally sit cross-legged; women sit with knees bent and legs together, to one side. If you begin to feel uncomfortable, stretch your legs straight in front of you under the table.
The best seat–usually the center seat facing the door– should be offered to the most honored person present in the room.
Sometimes, a hostess may not join the party for the meal; she will be in the kitchen preparing food. Instead, she may join the group at the end of the evening for singing and drinks.
The most common South Korean toast you will hear is ‘Gun-bae.’ When you raise your glass, be sure to do so with your right hand. To show extra respect toward the person being toasted, support your right arm with your left hand. Be aware that the minute you drain your glass, it is a cue to your host that you would like a ‘refill.’
Some Koreans may not talk much during meals. They prefer to concentrate on their food while eating and talk later over coffee/tea after a meal is finished.
Refrain from discussing business during a meal unless your host brings it up first.
Rather than waiting for the host to put food on your plate, you may serve yourself, if he asks you to. But don’t start serving yourself or eating before the host initiates it.
Do not put food taken from a serving dish directly into your mouth. Transfer it to your plate or bowl first.
Chopsticks are the most commonly used utensils, but you can ask for forks or knives at restaurants in big cities. You will also be offered a spoon for eating soups and dishes with noodles.
Foods of any kind should not be picked up with your fingers. Fruit is eaten in slices with forks.
Korean meal guidelines
Always use your right hand in passing and receiving items at the table. If you would like to show added respect for someone, allow your left hand to support your right arm when offering an item.
It is polite to refill your neighbour’s cup and soy sauce bowl when empty; expect the others to do the same for you.
Korean meals include rice and soup, and a lot of side dishes called ‘ban-chan.’ They accompany entrees free of charge. Be aware that many of the dishes will be extremely spicy.
Many Koreans eat similar meals for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. However, some young people have started eating a simpler breakfast with coffee and toast, instead of a hot breakfast with rice and soup.
Every meal includes soup, which is normally served hot, and may contain a number of ingredients, such as fish, bean paste, beef, and bean sprouts.
Kimchi is served with Korean meals. Kimchi can be made of different vegetables, such as cucumber or turnip. But most commonly it is made of Korean cabbage which is rinsed with salt water and left to ferment overnight. Then spices and herbs are added, including garlic, red pepper, green onion and ginger.
Rice is the staple of each meal.
Noodles are very popular, substituting for rice. There are a wide variety of rice, potato, wheat and flour noodles.
Bones and shells are placed on the table or a spare plate.
The host may offer more food several times. If you are hosting a party in Korea, offer food to your Korean guests more than once because some may be shy in accepting at the first invitation.
When you are finished eating, place your chopsticks on the table or on the rest. Leaving them sticking out of rice is discouraged, since this is how offerings are made to ancestors.
A service charge is automatically included in fancy restaurant and hotel bills. Tipping is not necessary.
Jap Chae This dish consists of clear noodles stir-fried with meat and vegetables.
Naeng Myun This summer dish consists of buckwheat noodles in beef broth or without a broth, served cold. It is also served with strips of beef, half a hard-boiled egg and/or vegetables.
Kim This is seaweed, sometimes wrapped around vegetables and seasoned rice to make kim bap, a common item to take on picnics.
Mandoo These small dumplings, filled with delicious vegetables and meat, are served in a hot soup [man doo gook], fried [goon man doo] or steamed [jjin man doo].
Bee Bim Bap A large bowl is filled with rice, small piles of colorful vegetables are layered on top, and a barely cooked egg placed to one side. Customarily, a generous amount of red hot pepper paste is added to the bowl and then mixed with the other contents.
Bulgogi These are thin strips of beef that have been marinated in soy sauce, garlic, green onions and sugar, then barbecued–often right at your table. You may wrap bulgogi and red bean paste inside lettuce.
Galbi These are barbecued beef ribs, prepared in a similar way to bulgogi.
Galbi Chim This can be described as a beef rib casserole. The beef is seasoned as it is in kalbi, simmered with carrots, mushrooms, chestnuts, and potatoes.