Death of Hoi Shik (회식)
Korea has traditionally been a highly cohesive and homogeneous society and socializing with colleagues has been an integral part of the office for generations. In the modern era, the firm provided employment (tacitly guaranteed for life), status and a social network for leisure time activity. People worked long hours and dedicated tremendous effort to raising the country out of poverty into the modern nation it is today. Employees were fiercely loyal and took great pride in the firm's performance. Bonding was strengthened and work stress relieved and colleagues often went out after work, quaffed soju and gorged on samgyupsal (cheap liquor and grilled pork bellies). Periodically, senior managers and executives hosted their team to meals and drinks as a team-building exercise. These invitations were often impromptu with the manager announcing at or near quitting time, "We are having drinks tonight" and any previous plans anyone had going out the window. Employees felt compelled to participate in these sessions as opting out was perceived as disloyalty and could undermine chances for promotion. Furthermore, a decent meal and unlimited drinks at the company's expense were often welcome. The sessions resembled a 'pub crawl' as men followed up dinner with visits to subsequent establishments for 2-cha, 3-cha or more, often arriving home well lubricated late at night (or early the next morning). Collectively, these events are known as hoi shik (group dining or company dining) and helped solidify Korea’s reputation as a drinking culture.
It is hard to pinpoint the moment when things began to change. Perhaps it started with the Asian financial crisis of 1997 / 1998. Major layoffs undermined company loyalty. Firms were under financial stress and had to cut costs. After recovering from the crisis, many managers tried to buy back loyalty by reviving the practice but dropouts began to grow more frequent. Many people lost their jobs and corporate cohesion was weaker. One's friends were no longer all employees of the one firm. Over time, social changes further undermined the practice. Female employees, very much in the minority, were frequently hassled (and worse) at hoi shik by drunk, older colleagues. Health consciousness grew and the ill effects of frequent overdrinking (and over eating) raised concerns. The family unit became increasingly important and younger employees, in particular, resented staying out and getting drunk on inexpensive liquor. Individualism undermined conformity. Companies too began to recognize productivity losses arising from badly hungover staff. Tax law changed limiting the amount companies could write off for entertainment expenses. The 1:1:9 slogan appeared, 1 location, 1 type of alcohol and home by 9 pm. Hoi shik began to evolve into team lunches (without alcohol).
With the hoi shik already an endangered species, it is possible that COVID-19 will be its death knell. Social distancing rules have severely curtailed socializing. Crowded indoor spaces are breeding grounds for super spreader events. Restaurants are closing earlier and limiting the size of each party. As a result of cultural changes in Korea and an ongoing pandemic, the practice of going out after work with colleagues, night after night (and mass-murdering brain cells) may have gone the way of the dinosaur. And that is something to be celebrated. Cheers!