Korean work/play culture and how to survive it

A short post about cultural differences and avoiding conflict in the Korean workplace- through my eyes. This has been my personal experience, and can not be generalized or applied to Korea as a whole. I am sure every person experience these kinds of things differently based on past experiences, their personalities and cultural backgrounds.

1. Hweshik

Korean love to get together to eat and booze in the name of work or team building. It is called Hweshik (회식), and the company/school will carry all cost related to it. It sounds great, right? Well, the downside to Hweshik is the fact that you cannot escape it. It’s not optional. If you had plans for Friday night, cancel them- you’ve got some company boozing to do. All in all the Hweshik is not terrible. You’ll have to drink to your own (and all your coworkers’) health and happiness about 20 times, make and endure a couple of speeches and if you’re lucky you will even get to sing some Korean songs whilst holding your coworkers’ hands.

2. The ‘rule’ of three

This is closely related to Hweshik. When Koreans celebrate something or say goodbye, it happens in stages of three. First, you’ll kick off with a formal(ish) dinner, next will be a round of heavy drinking at a second location, and lastly, you will be singing your heart out at a Noraebang (Korean style Karaoke). Don’t expect to be home before midnight (or as the Koreans say – Overnight), and don’t think any of the bonding which happened will be referred back to the next day at the office- your Korean co-workers will most likely never mention it again.

3. Sharing

Koreans share EVERYTHING! Food, space, work- you name it. It is considered to be impolite to refuse a gift, which means that you will be eating a lot of fruit, rice cakes, and chocolates whether you want to or not. Also, when your boss asks you if you want coffee it actually means that he wants coffee and he expects you to make it. When you are eating in the office, or in front of your co-workers, be sure to offer them some. To be possessive of something in the Korean workplace will not go down well. Sharing is caring.

4. Helping

For me, this was the biggest obstacle to overcome. I am very independent, and most times I refuse help from others because it’ll either slow me down or do not live up to my (oftentimes ridiculous) standards. The Koreans help with everything. At first, I seriously began to doubt my own abilities, since they treated me like a five-year-old. I swear if they could help me brush my teeth in the morning they would. After getting angry, losing my temper and having some serious talks with our team leader nothing changed. I started to observe the Korean teachers interacting with one another and saw that this treatment was not just reserved for me. They seriously do treat one another like toddlers. I saw our team leader, a 50 something man, being fed by younger co-workers. I’ve seen them cut up each other’s food and taking spoons or utensils from each other’s hands to start feeding one another. A box, weighing less than 2 kilos (I kid you not!) will be carried be two Korean teachers. It’s just part of the culture, and you either have to live with it or move on, because that’s not about to change.

5. Drinking

Man, it’s fun to drink with Koreans! I’ve never seen people sling back alcohol at this speed. Granted, the party lasts only 3 hours before the first ‘drunken’ people will leave. The die-hards will stick around for another hour, where even more booze will be consumed at an even faster rate! Just remember the drinking etiquette- empty glasses are an insult, so keep it flowing. Fill your friends’ or co-workers glasses for them, and pour using two hands. Turn away when taking a shot with an older person, or somebody with a higher position than yourself.

6. Privacy and personal space

My last little survivor tip- do not get precious about your privacy or personal space. You will be fighting a losing battle. Your classroom is not your personal domain, it’s seen as school property and it is not strange for coworkers to sit at your desk, or do things on your PC. Medical records or things that will be considered private in Western Countries are not necessarily viewed in the same light here. If you went to the gynie, everybody will know (yep, it happened to me). If you use your national health insurance, the record is open for your school to see. Our co-workers also love to ask us about the other Native/English teachers. They don’t see it as gossip, and cannot understand how we get awkward about answering their little Q & A’s.

7. Time

Korean culture in general, but especially in the office setup is heavily focussed on (빨리 빨리) balli-balli, which means hurry up or go faster. If a meeting is set for 10 am, you’re supposed to be there at least 5 minutes before ten. If the bus leaves at 6:15, you have to be seated by 6:10- the driver will start the bus by 6:13 and on the dot 6:15 the bus will leave the parking lot. Coming late, or tardiness, in general, is frowned upon and not appreciated in the Korean culture.

All and all I don’t  think any of these things should keep you from having a blast in Korea. A positive outlook and attitude will help you overcome, and make peace with the cultural differences, and you never know- you might even start appreciating some of it…


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