A group of men walk into a nightclub and settle around a table. They order a bottle of whisky and a fruit plate, then scan the dance floor. One of them spots a girl and motions to a waiter, who hustles over. The man points to the girl and slips the waiter a few notes. The waiter heads out to the dance floor, grabs the girl by the wrist, and brings her back to the man’s table.
It sounds like a scene out of a gangster flick, but in fact this is a completely normal way for young Koreans to meet, par for the course at Seoul’s ‘booking clubs’. In a culture heavily influenced by Confucianism, where an emphasis on hierarchical relationships is built into the language, it’s awkward for most Koreans to merely approach a stranger and strike up a conversation. Virtually all new meetings – social, romantic, business – require an introduction by a mutual acquaintance. This establishes age, job title, and other status markers, letting the two people know what forms of address to use and what protocol to use when interacting.
Needless to say, this culture doesn’t lend itself to casual flirting, which is where the booking club and its hustling waiters come in. The waiters serve, in effect, as mutual acquaintances for hire, providing introductions for club-goers. When the guy at the table slips the waiter some cash, the only thing he’s paying for is the opportunity to say hello. If the girl isn’t interested, she’s free to leave at any time, and the guy has to cast another line.