Skip to content

Korea Blog: Korea Has Started Using English Names — But When Will It Stop?

As it spreads across the world, Starbucks has come to serve many functions, not least giving the kind of travelers inclined to complain about the global homogenization of place an Exhibit A to point to. Such travelers make those complaints with a special intensity when in Seoul, which in addition to a robust local coffee-shop economy boasts the highest number of Starbucks locations per capita of any city in the world. I take a slightly brighter view of the green mermaid’s ongoing journey from Seattle to omnipresence, and not just because they offer those twin lifebloods of the 21st-century writer, coffee and reliable wi-fi: Starbucks stores, despite and indeed because of their efforts to hold every aspect of their experience steady across cities, countries, and continents, have ended up becoming the places where pure contrast forces the host culture’s deepest-seated characteristics into view.

Not that you’d know it at first glance — nor, sometimes, at a closer second glance, which in a Korean Starbucks might well take in the baristas’ nametags, nearly all of which bear, in bold, chalky, Roman capital letters, names like SALLY or RYAN or ANGIE. You’d expect that in Denver or Syracuse, but in the capital of South Korea, let alone the much smaller towns all over the country, and pinned to the chests of an all-Korean staff serving a mostly Korean clientele, the effect is surreal. It turns out to have come down from corporate: “Starbucks staff are required to have nicknames,” writes the Korea Times‘ Kim Young-jin. “The reason, company officials say, is to create a culture in which all ‘partners’ are equal.”

That in opposition to Korea’s established corporate culture, “notorious for long working hours and a rigid chain of command,” where employees, as a rule, address each other not by name but a title that locates them unambiguously in the organizational hierarchy. More than a few Korean companies have followed Starbucks’ suit. “Kakao, one of South Korea’s largest Internet companies, decided three years ago that all employees would go by English nicknames,” writes Rachel Premack in the Washington Post. Additionally, “companies in English education, tourism, trade or other globally focused industries typically have English nickname policies. They want to accommodate foreign business partners who can’t decipher between Lee Ji-yeong and Lee Ji-yeon.”

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.