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Weddings and Funerals as Social Metrics

Weddings and Funerals as S...

In South Korea, the number of guests at weddings, as well as the amount of money given and the sumptuousness of the banquet is often a measure of a family's social standing. At funerals, the number of wreaths presented by friends, business associates and local politicians is a comparable social metric.

"Face" is an important element of weddings here. Some Koreans describe weddings as being less a celebration than an occasion for 'showing off'. For example, if the bride has fewer guests at the wedding than the groom, her family may find it humiliating. 

Some families send out thousands of wedding invitations. A bank account number is sometimes included so people who can’t attend can still send money. Often, the decision of whether to attend is based on whether the couple, or their relatives, attended weddings or funerals in one’s own family — or might be expected to. Families keep records of how much they receive and from whom so that they can reciprocate. Failure to do so can ruin a friendship.

Every year, the roughly 330,000 South Korean couples who get married spend an average of 15 million to 20 million won, or $13,000 to $17,000, in wedding expenses (re Sunoo is a matchmaking company that conducts an annual survey on wedding expenses). The cost can exceed 50 million won for hotel weddings. Much of that cost is covered by cash gifts. In 2009,  South Koreans gave out 8 trillion won, or 524,500 won for each household, in cash gifts for weddings and funerals (that are presented in a white envelope), according to the National Statistical Office. In 2010, the average gift was 50,000 up from the previous rate of 30,000 won for the colleague down the hall, 50,000 won for a good friend and 100,000 won for someone one has known well for many years.

"But these envelopes also reflect a culture in which giving cash is considered so natural that people sometimes call it a “greeting” — and, in some cases, use it as a cover for bribery. In 2004, a revision of election laws included a ban on politicians giving cash envelopes, except at the weddings and funerals of close relatives. However, there are regular reports of government officials and even, occasionally, politicians, who have clearly solicited cash gifts through invitations to a large number of their subordinates/suppliers. A regular business person can find her/himself attending anywhere from 30 to 50  weddings and funerals a year for friends, employees and business acquaintances.

Some younger couples are rebelling against what they call a “commercial” wedding culture controlled by parents. It is generally the parents who send out invitations, collect the cash and pay for the wedding, and by and large, more guests are there for the parents than for the couple getting married.

If you are Korean and someone attended a funeral in your family or gave a gift of money, you are expected to reciprocate to an equal or greater degree, meaning that you must give the same amount of money or more, never less. Just as with weddings. Failure to do so can have very negative consquences in one's family, business or social life. It can mean relatives who never speak to you (or yours) again, losing out on business contracts, missing out on promotions/bonuses, etc. 
Some companies have a fund for giving funeral money. In some instances, it's a separate company fund, while in others, executives and/or staff each contribute a monthly or yearly amount. While in some companies, foreign staff members participate, in others they are not encouraged to do so as they are 'guests'. Foreign executives may be expected to attend funerals for some staff members' families.
Even though a growing number of Koreans complain about the practice of giving cash gifts (and the competition) at weddings and funerals, it's unlikely that the cash envelope tradition will disappear any time soon. As it can sometimes be difficult to tell the difference between 'bribes' and genuine gifts, weddings and funerals remain an excellent way of passing on "payments". Moreover, people who have given out envelopes over the years generally want to have their turn on the receiving end. it will be some time before the cash envelope tradition fades. 
K4E Editor: Korea4Expats.com 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 info@korea4expats.com





Last Updated on 2015-03-04

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