[LETTERS] Changing Korean drinking habits

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[LETTERS] Changing Korean drinking habits

Let me explain a typical Korean drinking ritual. At the beginning of a dinner, every participant’s glass is filled with soju. Everyone drinks together after a toast by the dinner’s host or the eldest participant. It’s custom to offer your glass to the most senior person at the table. When a glass is given to someone, it means that the owner respects and wants to improve their relationship with the receiver.

When a person receives a glass, the owner of the glass pours soju into it. It is regarded as rude if the receiver refuses to take the offered glass. The receiver drinks the soju, and then returns the glass to the owner. Now, the giver and receiver, having drank together, can call each other friends. Generally, every participant exchanges their glass at least once with everyone else at the table. If anyone misses out on sharing a glass of soju with a dinner companion, they may feel disappointed.

So, it’s easy to imagine that if there are 10 people at a dinner table, everyone has to drink at least 10 glasses of soju. A participant will drink the first glass of soju as a toast, followed by sharing soju with the nine other dinner guests. That’s a lot of drinking for each participant. Think about a dinner table with 20, 30 or more gathered.

For reference, one bottle of soju can fill approximately eight shot glasses. So a participant who has 10 shots of soju during a dinner is going to consume at least one bottle of soju or more.

Some people can drink up to 3 or 4 bottles of soju during dinner. Of course, this is quite dangerous.

My job involves overseas business. As a result, I often have dinner with foreigners. Foreigners are usually very interested in Korean drinking culture. I explain the customs and we perform it at the dinner table. Everyone becomes good friends after a dinner involving Korean drinking culture.

However, Korean drinking culture does raise a particular problem: What about the people who cannot drink or have a limited drinking capacity? These colleagues, especially female co-workers, are reluctant to join a dinner party because of the drinking. As a result, they gradually become outsiders. In fact, the majority of Korean business people believe that dinner (with alcohol) is a very important social activity. For the most part, it’s true.

Several months ago, I asked my 20 colleagues about Korean drinking culture. All of them agreed that Korean drinking culture must be changed, however everyone had different opinions about how to change it - one colleague suggested that we follow Western drinking styles while other people insisted the custom of exchanging glasses should be kept. I came up with a solution after a series of discussions with my colleagues and while thinking about it during a flight from Amsterdam to Seoul.

The modified Korean drinking culture should be as follows:

At dinner, we order coke, sprite, and other non-alcoholic drinks as well as soju. The drinking custom is the same as before. However, the only difference is that when someone offers their glass, the recipient can choose their preferred drink from among the beverages - including soju - on the dinner table. An empty soju bottle, filled with water, could also be used because it looks like soju.

I suggested this style of drinking for our team’s Christmas party. Everybody was happy and enjoyed it.

The next day I decided to give a name to my idea: “Globalized Korean Drinking Culture.” Our team members call it “GKDC” for short. I introduced GKDC to other team members as well as my friends. Everyone welcomed it.

There is one very important thing to consider when using GKDC in Korean society. The eldest person, or the host, has to announce that everyone must accept the receiver’s choice of drink - without prejudice or reluctance when offering their glass. In Korean culture, a junior team member would feel guilty or stressed when choosing a beverage other than soju.

This is a key factor for the success of GKDC. Drinking and socializing should not be a burden or stressful. So, while some of us love to drink soju with our colleagues, we must also accept that others cannot drink as much as we do. Instead of alienating friends and colleagues due to their drinking habits, we must respect their decision. Most importantly, pouring a drink for your friend or colleague is a symbolic gesture ? what’s inside the glass should be irrelevant.

Why don’t you try Globalized Korean Drinking Culture at your next dinner party?

Kim, Jong-hwa, General Manager, Kepco [kim765@kepco.co.kr]

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