Monday, 24 November 2014

Four Weddings, a Funeral and a Baby Shower - A look at coworker events in the Korean workplace

Four Weddings, a Funeral and a Baby Shower - A look at coworker events in the Korean workplace

“Michael, you should tell the staff” Said the Korean managing director as I handed in my application for leave. “About what? My leave?” I enquired. “No, about your brother’s wedding!” I smiled and politely replied “No we don’t really do that in Australia”. One of the interesting facets of Korean culture and particularly in the corporate world whether dictated by “noonchi” a Korean concept similar to an invisible set of etiquette which should be maintained by staff or out of good manners is the practice of officially announcing and informally inviting other staff members to significant, but very personal, life events.

Korean company intranet freeboards are often filled to the brim with notices of weddings, childbirths and deaths from throughout the company – sometimes involving members who push the boundary of the concept of family relative (like cousins). It is not unusual to log onto a Korean companies intranet and see a stream of notices such as “Jiwon Kim's Father from the Development Team has passed away”, “Assistant Manager Seo from Marketing will be getting Married this Saturday - Congratulations ”, “Kim Ji Yeon Manager from Sales is celebrating her baby’s first birthday this Sunday”. Within these notices are then informal invites with full details of the location and time as those other staff members who are in close relation – maybe from the same team or department will be expected to not only attend the event but also contribute money.

The title of my article is not just a play on the famous movie starring Hugh Grant but an accurate record of the number of events that I attended in my first year as a new graduate working in a medium sized Korean company. Of those 6 events there was only two weddings where I had a direct link to the worker and was genuine in my congratulations / commiserations. The remainder of the events were dictated by the above mentioned noonchi and my duty (burden) as a member of the company to attend the events in a show of support for my fellow co-worker.

I often speak about this practise when I am required to do presentations of cultural difference between Australia and Korea. In particular the attendance of a funeral of a family member of a co-worker while interpreted as good manners from a Korean is likely to be considered rude and insincere from an Australian point of view.

In my own experience it was the father of our HR director who passed away. As a HR team member I was expected to not only attend the event but to also work at the funeral. I was placed at the front of the Korean funeral house where I organised shoes for guests. For background; this funeral house was held in a Korean ondal style building and all guests were required to take their shoes off before entering. When you have a 100 plus people coming and going in a few hours then sorting of the shoes into shoe lockers and then finding them again is a bit like working in a more pungent version of a car valet.

To speak honestly of the experience I wasn’t too happy I was required to work at this event let alone be there. I had only one previous interaction with the HR director and that was during my job interview. Beyond that I never once had a conversation with him but here I was giving my condolences to his family and friends. Now I don’t consider myself a horrible person for saying this (maybe you will) but let’s be honest - I didn’t really care that his father had died. I barely knew the HR director and certainly did not know his father and I felt very conflicted in being at the funeral. In my own heart my presence there seemed very shallow and this fake display of sorrow is something that as an Australian was difficult.

What’s worse is that after I finished my job sorting and handing out shoes for roughly 2 hours I then sat down with staff in the dining area for dinner and genuinely had a good time. Yes, I had fun at a Funeral, but I was just following the lead of my seniors and co-workers who were soon turning the funeral into an all-night drink-a-thon. Maybe it’s what the deceased would have wanted? Maybe he would have hated it? Who knows because neither I nor the some 30 odd co-workers who came that night had ever met the deceased.

Korean funeral houses often have an area for mourning and paying your respects while adjacent or on a separate floor is a dining hall where guests gather to eat and drink and talk with old friends and family. Despite it being a funeral it was actually enjoyable (ok I am a horrible person) to sit down and drink with my co-workers, throughout the night other team members and friends from other departments dropped by and joined us. I was at the funeral from 7pm to 3am drinking and having fun.

It’s something that my Korean friends always chastise me for but the truth is that I enjoyed the atmosphere of the funeral more than I had any Korean wedding – I recognise that it was a funeral of someone who I had no emotional attachment too but still compared to the majority of weddings I had attended it was by far a much better ‘event’. I also spent more time at the funeral which often is held overnight with guests coming and going over a 24 hour period. It seemed much more appropriate for a celebration rather than a funeral and had many aspects which are seriously lacking in the shotgun style; get-in and get-out buffet line Korean wedding hall.

In my current job working for a Korean company I certainly don’t object to the idea of letting the majority Korean staff know that my brother is going to get married soon but I didn’t want to burden them with it. I didn’t want them to feel obliged or pushed into congratulating my brother or worse offering me money to give to my brother, which if an official notice was made by the managing director then some staff might have felt obliged to do.

I wonder sometimes if many Koreans feel the same way themselves in companies – the social and financial burden of these events can sometimes outweigh the positives when it involves someone who they do not have a personal relationship with. There is also the pressure and stress of being placed into those situations with the many watching eyes of the company surely to scrutinize over every single action. The hardest things for me to understand is even if my Korean co-workers held the same view as I did about attending these events, sure enough when it was their turn they also placed notices on the freeboard – maybe out of obligation, or to receive money or because it’s good matters.

Attending co-worker events has both positives and negatives but it would make sense to ensure that, particularly for younger company employees, these events and the burden that comes along with them does not get out of control.


  1. I have always thought the general mindset amongst Koreans is that it all works out fairly evenly in the end ... so even though you're forking out 50K to a co-worker you don't know that well because his/her father died ... you get it back when your father dies.

    1. Yeah, if you live in this country long enough it usually ends that way...

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