Recently, I’ve mostly been writing at HanmadiKorean.com (when I’m not impersonating Isabella Bird, doing editing work, or working on other projects). Here’s a cross-post from the Hanmadi project how working in Korea is different from working in the United States.
6 ways Korean and US workplaces are different
A few weeks ago I started my first full-time job in the United States. (I was working part time before.) This has gotten me thinking about a few ways Korean workplaces are different from American ones.
1. Work drinking
One of the most blatant differences is in the drinking culture. Here in the US, a few professions are famous for (and even proud of) their prolific drinking, but in most, a drink or two at the occasional happy hour or holiday party is the most you’ll encounter.In Korea, on the other hand, coworkers in almost every field drink (and get drunk) together regularly. In fact, applications for sales jobs often ask about applicants’ drinking ability (chuyang or juryang, 주량). And almost everyone has a drink at hoesik (회식, or work dinner), which occur, depending on the industry and employer, anywhere from once a month to several times a week.
Even as a second grade teacher at a private Christian elementary school, I encountered this phenomenon: end-of-year parties with on-stage chugging competitions and endless bottles of wine, parents passing us six packs at the 9 a.m. start of the on-campus parent-teacher volleyball tournament, and, most infamously, the Grade Six team’s victory celebration, in which we shared grilled pork belly while taking turns chugging 600 mL of Cass beer at once from the cup-shaped trophy, round after round after round.
If you’re thinking all this drinking might have led to a few hangovers, you’re not wrong. In the US, of course, I think being hung over at work is generally considered to be irresponsible. In Korea, though, being hung over at work because of hoesik is almost a point of pride, because it shows you’re truly invested in the group.
Read more about Korean drinking culture here.
Alcohol isn’t the only thing you drink at work in Korea, where instant coffee rules the break room. In the US, the coffee situation ranges from apparently bottomless urns of shared brew to bring-your-own-Keurig-cup, but there’s not a pack of instant to be seen.
When I moved to Seoul from Mississippi in 2007, I had, needless to say, many cultural adjustments to make. The biggest hurdle was my frustration at what I perceived as an inability to plan ahead appropriately. Plans would be made and changed at the last minute, or the principal would wait until the last minute to inform the teachers of plans she had known about for weeks, which was exceedingly disruptive to lesson planning.
This happened on a more or less weekly basis, but my most vivid memory was when I was told one Friday morning–when I had dressed particularly frumpily and planned rather less thoroughly than usual–that a film crew would be visiting my classroom that day for a reality-type show about the family life of one of my students, whose father was famous for a role in the television industry.
After nearly a decade as a part of the Korean sociocultural sphere, I rarely get frustrated at this way of doing things and just go with the flow most of the time, but I still don’t understand it.
In Korean office settings, pretty much everyone is dressed to the nines. Women wear full make-up and high heels; men wear suits and ties–and even if the suits are cheap polyester and the heels were bought for 10,000 won ($10) in a subway station, a lot of time and discomfort has been put into living up to the image of “office worker” and in the case of the women, “fashionable office worker.”
In the US, on the other hand, there’s a lot more variety, and it sometimes feels as though anything goes as long as jeans and sneakers are restricted to Fridays and men’s shirts have a collar.
In my American workplaces, meetings have been almost democratic affairs. There was certainly someone leading them, but others were expected to voice opinions and generally free to interject. Discussions of personal lives were permitted or encouraged, and some level of banter was a given. Supervisors have sat along one side of long conference tables.
This is very different from Korea, where hierarchy and order rule the day. On the other hand, someone almost always brings cake or fruit to Korean meetings, so at least you have something to munch on while you sit quietly and wait to be called on from the conference table head.
In Korean workplaces, the norm is for people to do almost everything together. People rarely eat lunch at their desks (or alone anywhere), something that all my American coworkers seem to do at least sometimes. At larger companies, there are also clubs for various hobbies, which people seem expected to participate in, as well as sporting events (like the volleyball tournament), hiking trips and other events.
Do workers like this? I have to admit that I at least did like it sometimes, especially when I worked for the Korean army. But in general, I think, no, as the rise in workers eating lunch alone demonstrates. Sometimes it’s a great feeling being so ensconced in a group, but other times, it’s a huge pain.
Actually, I think people (both in the West and in East Asia) way way overuse the collectivist vs. individualist thing as explanations for things that are different in Asian countries vs. Western ones. The Korean tendency toward collectivism might mean workers participate in these things, but it doesn’t mean they always like it.
Further reading: If you want to read more about Korean workplaces (especially from an outsider’s perspective), check out this series that was published in the Wall Street Journal a couple of years ago.
In this case, mostly personal experience and received wisdom.