Coffee Shop Wallflower - Peak into Korean Business Culture

A glimpse into Korean work culture from a coffeeshop conversation.

Large coffee chain in Gangnam, South Korea. Yes, it's the same Gangnam from Psy's Gangnam Style song.

Two friends have met up for the first time in a long time. Both appear to be in their late 20s/early 30s. It's really hard to tell sometimes. One is dressed in a suit and the other in casual clothes. Imagine investment banker with software engineer. 

It seems they've been friends since high school. The one in the suit looks well kept and is the better looking one. My opinion obviously. But how much care one puts into their external appearance says a lot of the person. I'll call the better dressed person 'Suit' and the other 'Hoodie' for the future reference in this article. 

Suit went to the army in 2007 while he was in university and Hoodie is envious of that fact for he had to go later. South Korea still has mandatory military service and you get the enrollment letter once you hit 18 years of age. It used to be for 2 years but I've heard they've since reduced the requirement to just more than 1 year. Most choose to go to the army during their university years so as not to miss out on their prime 'earning' years as they don't get paid in the army. Hoodie went to the army after university and laments the missed years in the working world. 

Suit seems to have clients who are the large entertainment idol companies: JYP, SM and YG. Idols are what we call our own "K-Pop groups". With BTS and Black Pink coming on shows like Jimmy Fallon, and other late night shows they're a pretty big deal globally. They go into a conversation about the young female members in the many Korean idol groups and debate between each other on which specific female singer is their "ideal type" to have as a wife/girlfriend. Given the mountain of idol girls in their 20s in Korea there is a wide variety of selections to choose your "ideal girl" from. It's a common enough question that comes in most Korean talk shows to ask male celebrities which female celebrity is their 'type'. Females too many identify themselves to a specific celebrity type. This is actually how some may input their 'order' at the plastic surgery institutes. These plastic surgery institutes look like luxury offices. You'd actually think it was Goldman Sachs given the amount of gold that was used to deck out the exterior. 

Idolization of these idols, no pun intended, is everywhere in the country. Just before coming to this coffee shop I was at a subway station where there were wallpapers lining up the entire wall for all the idol figures (men and women) whose birthday month it was. Not even Jay Z or Beyonce will get entire subway walls in New York announcing their birthday. There is a different cultural respect to the idols here. The two men debate and reveal to each other their ideal mate's persona encapsulated into a specific female idol. I'm too removed from the Korean entertainment world to know who they are unfortunately. 

Suit reveals to his friend that he's been taking dance lessons, specifically hip-hop. He says it's a good talent to develop so when he is called up by his superiors or coworkers to present his talent during team gatherings he will have one that is worth showing and won't have some 'loser' talent. His words, not mine. Talent shows are popular in Korean culture too. Whether it be in a professional or casual setting. Korean reality shows introduce celebrities and have new ones showcase a talent. As this becomes part of their identity, new idols have openly talked about how stressful it is to develop a specific talent to showcase as singing and dancing are table stakes. But this is present in corporate settings too for junior hires. Especially in company retreats or mandatory drinking events. Historically, mandatory drinking events going for two, three or even four rounds into the night were commonplace. But recent Korean conglomerates, like Samsung, have been working to limit mandatory drinking to only one round per night. At least, for the company-sponsored piece. But alas, it is at these events where juniors have to impress seniors with talents and be able to entertain their superiors to be seen in a positive light for their future career. All politics. So, Suit is getting dance lessons to prep for that. 

Hoodie turns the conversation to Suit's skin. Suit also reveals to his friend that he's been seeing a dermatologist. Having just seen a male lipstick commercial at a subway station I'm not surprised he has his own dermatologist. Korean skincare is globally famous. It does match well with our superficial and external-scorecard dependent the society is. The funny thing is, most Koreans are heavy drinkers and smokers, so it's quite commonplace for many to have extremely poor skin. Maybe that's why our skincare products are so powerful. 

Korean work culture is extremely different from the norms of North America. It has certain similarities to the Japanese and Chinese but it would be another lazy generalization to say they're alike. Various societies have their own culture and I hope this little story gave you a small look into a greater culture. 


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