Working and Business > Key Values & Norms

Drinking Norms

Drinking Norms

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Koreans approach play in the same way they do work – at full throttle. Entertaining, including drinking, is an important part of doing business as it is perceived as a means of establishing a personal relationship between business acquaintances or colleagues. 

Who pays? There used to be no such thing as ‘going Dutch’ in Korea. While things are changing, it is still not the norm. Generally, only one person will pay the bill when two or more people go out. When a supervisor is drinking or dining with subordinates, he or she must be especially sensitive to this custom because it dictates that he/she make the most strenuous effort to get to the cashier first and pay the bill. While the others will put up the most convincing fight and argument, always insist that this time, it’s your treat and they can do the honors next time. Younger subordinates may insist on going to a coffee shop immediately after a big costly meal paid for by you. This gives them the chance to repay the obligation by paying for the coffee, which might be in a more affordable range for them.

To drink or not to drink! Korea is home to a heavy drinking culture and this culture can cross in the business field. The expatriate businessperson in Korea will inevitably encounter a situation where alcohol is served, whether it is at a bar or at a meal with Koran associates. If you don’t wish to participate in the heavy drinking or the drink-to-get-drunk-as-fast-as-possible business culture, you can get out of it. If you area light drinker, are unsure of the potency of the alcohol being served or prefer to enjoy the evening with a clear mind, you can keep your glass half full. You can also indicate, from the beginning, that for health or personal reasons, you will only drink a little or just have one glass or even not have any. Your colleagues/clients may try to persuade you to have another at first or call for a ‘one-shot’ contest, but in this era of increased health consciousness and ‘well-being’ in Korea, your refusal to drink will usually be accepted, especially if you show that you are sociable and do want to get to know them better. Just be consistent and stick to the precedent. It’s also helpful to establish the non-drinking practice from the beginning. Start off as you mean to go on.

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How to get out of heavy drinking:

  1. As a foreigner, you are likely to be forgiven for not knowing the ‘rules’.
  2. Keep your glass half full – never let it be seen to be empty or someone will feel obligated to refill it.
  3. Drinking very very slowly can have the same effect – again don’t let your glass be empty.
  4. It’s sometimes possible to discretely pour drinks in plant stands, etc.
  5. Saying that your wife expects you home is sometimes accepted, although you can expect to be teased about it by your Korean colleagues who don’t have such concerns.
  6. Most also accept your non-drinking, at least for a while, if you explain that you are taking traditional  Korean herb medicine.
  7. That your religion discourages drinking is an increasingly acceptable excuse as well.

If you do decide to join in and behave according to Korean culture, there are some rules you’ll need to follow:

Drinking etiquette: 

  1.  The traditional Korean rule is that you never fill your own glass.
  2. If the bottle is on the table, always fill up the other person’s glass  when it is empty, especially if he/she is older or higher in status than you.
  3. Never fill the glass if it is partially filled. (This is why it’s good to keep your glass half empty if you don’t want to drink).
  4. If someone empties his glass and passes it to you, hold it up with two hands to be filled.  Don’t hold another person’s glass too long; return it promptly.
  5. To show trust and respect, a Korean of higher rank (this includes the person to whom you want to sell something) will drink and then fill his glass again and pass it to you. You should drink it – but if you’ve already established that you are not drinking, you should make it so that your refusal does not offend or hurt the other person’s kibun.

Drinking is often a prelude to doing business because the best way to get beyond the mask all adults show the world and to see a person’s ‘true self’ is to drink until all inhibitions are gone. Koreans often find it difficult to trust a business partner until they have gotten drunk together. As mentioned earlier, drinking together is seen as the only way to resolve a sensitive issue or to close a complex business deal. Although it is become more accepted to refuse to over-indulge, the attitude that the person who drinks less than his counterparts is hiding something or is afraid to let down his defenses is still quite prevalent.  

When Koreans drink, they usually also eat. ‘Drinking’ food is called anjoo and can include dried beef, dried fish, dried cuttlefish/squid, nuts, or even fruit. Some establishments will deliver anjoo to your table even if you don’t order it. You will, however, be expected to pay for it, whether you eat anything or not. 

Hangover Cures are numerous, among them haejang-guk - a kind of spicy 'blood' soup.soup made of dried napa cabbage, congealed ox or pork blood and vegetables in a meat broth. Drinkers will have it either that night or the morning after.

All is forgiven! Because the social rules and the rules of the workplace are so rigid and hierarchical, it is often only when drunk that a subordinate can giver her/his honest opinion to the boss. All that was said under the influence of alcohol is said to be forgiven and forgotten the next day. In practice, this applies more to Koreans than to a foreign employee and Korean boss.It is not unusual to see men in business suits supporting their almost comatose colleague although they too can barely walk. The loss of control created by heavy drinking can also result in physical fights, loud arguing, loud laughter and boisterous singing. Neighbors almost never call the police to report such disturbances. Much drunken bad behavior is not only tolerated but also excused.  

Click here for more on drinking customs. 

K4E Editor: tries to ensure that the information we provide is accurate and complete, so should you notice any errors or omissions in the content above please contact us at      


Last Updated on 2022-02-25

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