Korean Drinking Etiquette and Customs – Part 2: The Three Stages

Last week I wrote Part One of a two-part post on Korean Drinking Etiquette and Customs which dealt with the main drinking etiquette rules I learnt during my three years in Korea. Part Two will explore a typical night out with friends or co-workers. And trust me; you will go out… a lot! But don’t worry, it’s not all about the drinking – although that is definitely a big part! Korean culture tends to be very group and family focused, while most Western cultures are more about the individual.

My colleagues in Seoul

Socializing with work (and friends of course) is huge. If you want to be accepted, make friends with your co-workers, get a promotion, or generally have a good/happy work life – you need to attend the majority (if not all) of the work “dinners”. They are a vital part of working for most Koreans – whether they work in an academy as I did or in a company. That being said; don’t worry if you aren’t a big drinker or get tired early in the evening (not everyone is a night owl like me) – many of my co-workers would bow out after the “first stage”.

What’s the “first stage”? There are “stages”?

While going out with friends can be informal and often won’t follow this format, most work “dinners” or nights out will. I can just hear you say, “There’s a format?” Yep, but don’t worry – it’s all about having fun!

Samgyeopsal

A night out in Korea generally has three stages. First, everyone will go to a restaurant and do what people do in restaurants – eat and drink. I’ve had work dinners at everything from a very traditional Korean restaurant to a Korean fried chicken place, although most were held at restaurants that featured good samgyeopsal (삼겹살, thick slices of pork belly that you grill or barbecue yourself at the table). And of course, there was always alcohol too – soju & beer usually. Work dinners are very important for getting to know your co-workers and fitting into your workplace. Try to drink responsibly though as this is just the first stage!

Many of my older and married co-workers would go home after this stage so that’s always an option but I would caution you to try all three stages at least once. I always did but then I’m both a night owl and a bit of a social butterfly. Plus I became really good friends with most of my co-workers so our work dinners were always tons of fun. Oh yeah, did I forget to mention if it’s a work dinner, work pays! If we were going out just as friends we didn’t always follow the same format but sometimes we still did… when a night out doesn’t have to end until 6 am or so, you have lots of time to visit more than one place 🙂

With friends in a hof or bar

The second stage is generally a bar (that also serves food) so it’s about drinking with food while the first stage was about eating with drinks 🙂 Koreans ALWAYS eat when they drink (except on the dance floor in clubs) even if it’s just snacks like ojingoechae (오징어채, dried squid) and peanuts. Ojingoechae goes really well with beer and became one of my favourite bar snacks. If it’s a work dinner, then the bar is generally one close to the restaurant as all three stages will be in the same basic area usually. If you are out with friends, it’s generally a decent but cheap place to pre-drink for the third stage. My favourites for this stage would be Tinpan (1 or 2, usually 2 I think but I always got them confused) or Ho Bar (1-6 but I seemed to go to 3 most often) in Hongdae as I could dance while my friends were drinking. I’m not a big drinker but I love the social aspect of going out!

A scary sight - me singing at a noraebang

The third and final stage was the one that varied the most. It could be a club, a nightclub (or “night” or “booking club” or “booking” as nightclubs are often called in Korea – I’ll explain in a minute), or a noraebang (노래방, private karaoke rooms). When I went out with work, we generally ended up at either a noraebang or a nightclub. If I was going out with friends, it could be any of the three if I was with only Koreans or Kyopos (교포, a foreign-born person of Korean descent) but if I was with a mixed group of Western and Korean friends, we generally ended up at a club.

Clubs are just like at home but tend not to have a dress code (yay jeans!). If you are interested in reading more about the differences and similarities of clubbing in Seoul versus Toronto, read my article about it. However, nightclubs or booking clubs (they are the same, just different names) are something we don’t have in Canada (unless there’s one in one of the Koreatowns that I don’t know about?). Next week’s Korean culture post on the 23rd will have a more in-depth explanation but basically they are a cross between a club, a matchmaking/introduction service and a lounge. And noraebangs are private singing (karaoke) rooms. I loved them because then the only people who heard my horrible singing were my friends! Plus there are some super cool noraebangs in Korea.

Like I said earlier, if it was a work “dinner” or night out, we would lose people after each stage. My boss and his wife only ever stayed out for the first stage which made it easy for everyone else to also bow out when they got tired. However, my work was fairly informal and I know some of my friends who worked at Korean companies have different experiences. A good rule of thumb: don’t leave until your boss does! In my case, by the time we made it to the third stage, there was never anyone over 35. Of course if it was a night out with friends, we rarely lost people but then we were all un-married and under 35.

I would like to add that there was often a fourth stage if the night went late enough – breakfast. It was very common to stop for something to eat before heading home. Especially if you went clubbing because Korean clubs are open until 5 am, 6 am or 7 am (depending on the club) and if you’ve been dancing for 5-6 hours like I did, you’d be hungry too. Chamchi kimbap (참치김밥, tuna seaweed rolls) was one of my favourite after-clubbing foods.

And there’s a brief explanation of the three stages of a night out in Korea. If you haven’t already, please check out the first part of this post on Korean Drinking Etiquette. Have a great weekend everyone 🙂

I would love to hear from you! What are your experiences drinking or going out in Korea?


Cindy Zimmer

Live life to the fullest everyday – this is a the philosophy I try to live by and it’s taken me on many adventures. I write about Korean culture from a non-Korean perspective as the editor/founder of ATK Magazine and I’m the Chair of the Board of Directors of the Toronto Korean Film Festival (TKFF). Previously, I ran a Korean-English language exchange group (in Toronto) for 3 years to stay connected to my three years living in Korea as an English teacher. I love music, film, food and sports and write about 3 of the 4.

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