Since successful business in South Korea is based on a long-term, trusting relationship between the partners involved, eating together during business initiation, project work or even in the case of faltering negotiations offers the best opportunity to build or strengthen this personal relationship.
For this reason, business-related topics are ignored when eating and personal aspects are placed in the foreground. Similarities and common ground are looked for.
Time and place
Business dinners usually begin around 7 pm and take place in exclusive restaurants. Usually, the South Korean host will select the restaurant and food in advance in order to introduce their foreign guests to the Korean food culture. Many dishes with different dishes are served, all of which are eaten at the same time.
You should not show up empty-handed. Take a small gift that has a personal connection to your host. Gifts from your home region are also a good choice.
Etiquette at the table
Business dinners often take place in separate rooms of a restaurant. You will sit on cushions on the floor at a low table. Before entering this area you must take off your shoes if you have not already done so at the entrance of the restaurant. Sit on the seat cushion assigned to you and bend your legs to the side. Under no circumstances should you stretch your feet under the table towards your counterpart.
The seat with a view to the door is reserved for the highest-ranking guest. Opposite him is the highest-ranking representative of the South Korean side. All places next to it are taken according to the hierarchical level of the guests.
You should try all available dishes at least once. Your South Korean hosts will explain the food and put small appetizers on your plate. It is alright to refuse something because it is “too special”, but you should eat everything else and praise the food generously!
South Koreans eat with chopsticks. However, in some restaurants, you can ask for cutlery. Be aware that it is considered a big faux pas to put your chopsticks into the rice.
Also, make sure that you do not pour your drinks yourself. The waiter will not do so either. Instead, you fill each other’s glass.
You should also avoid blowing your nose at the table. This is considered rude. Be sure to withdraw to the toilet to clean your nose.
After the last course, the host will end the meal quite abruptly. Usually, he has then already paid the bill. When you say goodbye, you should definitely issue a counter-invitation and say thank you in an exuberant way.
Drinking and singing
A business dinner is very often followed by a visit to a bar, during which karaoke is often sung. You must be able to handle alcohol well, because it is considered rude to drink less than your South Korean hosts. You should also not leave the bar earlier, perhaps because you want to continue working in your hotel room.
If you do not want to drink alcohol, you should state medical reasons. Not wanting to sing karaoke, however, is not accepted. Don’t worry, sophisticated sound effects ensure that your voice can hardly be recognized anyway. It’s just about having fun together.
Toasts are often used to celebrate good relations and South Korean hospitality. Attention! Don’t look the others in the eye when you’re toasting.
South Koreans are strongly group-oriented and behave according to what is best for the group. Their lifelong affiliation to different groups, such as family, region of origin and company, determines their identity.
South Korean companies promote this sense of togetherness through things like uniformed clothing with company logos or singing their own company anthem. They do sports together, eat together after work and then go to a bar together. Professional and private matters are strongly mixed. In addition, there are Confucian values that dictate extensive hospitality.
If you are staying in South Korea only for a few days, you can expect your South Korean hosts to look after you around the clock. Invitations to joint activities, such as sightseeing, mountain tours or golf rounds, even at very short notice or on weekends, should definitely be accepted! As I said at the beginning: cultivating relationships is the most important thing in South Korean business.