The following was extracted from one of my lectures in the Business Culture Fundamentals Specialization of the KBC Professional Certification Program. Visit Korea Business Central for more information on the program and to register and get certified.
"If you’ve been in Korea for awhile and you haven’t been culturally astute (I’m sure this doesn’t apply to you, since you’ve gotten this far into our course!), you may have thought that eating out with Koreans is surprisingly cheap... It seems the Koreans are always arguing amongst themselves to pay for the meal, but nobody ever puts their hand out to collect from you, right?
"Oh boy.... I hope you don’t think Korea is the land of the free meal... Because if that’s what you think, then for you, it’s also the land of the short relationship...
"I’ve talked about this before... In a Korean relationship, the scales of obligation are always tipping back and forth, never reaching equilibrium. That’s why Koreans don’t generally “go Dutch”, and especially not in business. If each person covers their part of the bill every time, then each person’s account is in balance. But if everybody’s taking turns with the full bill, then the relationship rolls along with someone always needing to arrange to meet again to repay obligations from previous get-togethers.
"Also, in any monetary transaction that goes beyond business, Koreans find it quite unpleasant to talk about splitting a bill right down to the last won. So, even though you will occasionally find Koreans going Dutch (and especially when with non-Koreans), you’ll never hear this: “Let’s see... You had a Coke for W1,000; my coffee was W1,200... Your dinner was W7,900; mine was W9,000. So please give me W8,900 for your part and I’ll go pay the full amount up front...” Or another one... “Last time you paid the full amount of W21,000; this meal comes to W25,000, which means that you’re W4,000 in the hole with me...” Either each person will settle their bill at the front separately or each person will throw a nice round number of money into the pot for one person to then take to the front and settle at once.
"Anyway, the main lesson talks about the various situations of who pays for dinner. If you’re the visitor or if you’re the buyer or if you’re the invitee (or if you're the teacher!), and it’s a one-time thing, then letting the other party pay is appropriate.
"But in an ongoing relationship, it’s not so simple, and taking advantage of your visitor, buyer or invitee status repeatedly will not earn you brownie points... You’ve got to make it a point to invite and to pay, at least sometimes, and regardless of the way your Korean counterparts protest not to.
"(And you can't make it look like you chose a cheap restaurant in order to save your pennies, either!)
"There are lots of ways to pay, if you really want to do so. Here are a few approaches that have worked for me.
- State from the outset that you’re covering dinner this time and make it a condition of getting together. Then when the bill comes, remind the others about the agreement.
- Make up an excuse why you should have to pay, such as that they paid last time and you couldn’t respect yourself if you didn’t pay this time, or that business was really good for you last month and you need to celebrate, or a million other reasons.
- Pretend you’re getting up to go to the bathroom before the meal’s done and pay, or give the cashier an amount in excess of what the bill will come to and say you’ll settle the exact amount later.
- Grab the bill as soon as it’s set on the table and don’t give it up for anything. Having that in hand, you’ll be in a stronger position (though not guaranteed) to pay the bill at the end.
- Run fast and physically prevent your Korean counterpart from getting to the cashier before you do. (Not a water-tight approach if the other person still manages to get his credit card out before you get yours out,,)
"Another point to make is this... You should also be sensitive to the times NOT to pay, as things can get awkward if you’re too aggressive to pay in the wrong situations.
"I remember using approach #3 above to pay the bill with a group of students and a professor at university. That was a mistake. In that situation, as we were accompanying the professor on a short outing that he had organized, he was clearly the person to pay and my having settled the bill put him in an uncomfortable position.
"In another case, I was going out for lunch with colleagues from work back when I was at LG. I pulled #3 again... That was unnecessary since lunch was already going to be charged to the company account. I know that people were impressed with my effort, but I think they were also a bit amused.
"Koreans are proud of their concept of “jeong” and they believe it describes the Korean outlook on business relationships too. By making that extra effort to pay your way, and doing so without being obvious about your calculating ways, you’ll go a long way toward demonstrating your own sense of “jeong” and it will serve you well in business relationships in Korea.
"The next time we get together for dinner, my wallet will be watching how well you’ve learned this lesson... :-) …"