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5 Ways to Avoid Looking Downright Silly at a Korean Dinner Party

As a first time traveler to South Korea, navigating the labyrinth of social norms and customs can sometimes leave you feeling a bit disoriented. South Korea is a country that runs on etiquette. Break the "rules" and you run the risk of causing yourself embarrassment - or worse, causing embarrassment for someone else. Nowhere is this more apparent than around the dinner table. For Koreans, nothing is more sacred than sharing a meal together. This is where friends are made, business deals are brokered, and family comes together. In fact, eating is such a social function that you will almost never see Korean people eating alone, and a common greeting between friends on the street is, "Have you eaten today?" If you are fortunate enough to be invited out during your stay in Korea, it's useful to know what is expected of you. Don't worry though, as a foreigner you won't be expected to get everything right. They will forgive, and even find amusing, small lapses in "social grace."

1. Never pour your own drink

As I said, Korea is a very social country. There is a strong sense of community, and an expectation to look out for the people around you. If you are sick, you can expect a co-worker to show up at your door with soup. If somebody brings a snack to the office, expect that it will be cut into tiny pieces so everyone can have a bite. If you are thirsty you can expect somebody to pour you a drink. Pouring your own drink can be seen as selfish on your part or worse, maybe you think that your friends don't care enough to pour you a drink! When you finish a cup of water, soju, beer or makgeolli, just set the glass down and it will be filled again almost immediately. However, in the rare event that you want something to drink, but nobody seems to notice, what do you do? Resist the urge to fill your own and instead top everyone else up. Somebody will offer to pour you one too. It may not be efficient, but it's polite.
Korea, international recipes, international travel tips, food

Pajeon, a Korean specialty of eggs, green onions, flour, onions, and sometimes seafood alongside a traditional jar of Makgeolli, fermented rice.
Photo by: Jirka Matousek

2. Know your role!

There are various ways in which your status in Korean society is determined, age being the most important factor. Depending on your status within your group, you may have a distinct role to play come dinner time. There will usually be a mid-status level "organizer" who will determine where everybody sits, (according to status), and will order the food for everyone. You will, of course, all be eating the same thing around a collective BBQ grill, hot plate, or soup pot where the food will be prepared. The role of cooking the food will be delegated to someone as well. If this is a barbecue, usually the cook will be a man (ladies are free to challenge this assumption though!), and will usually be whoever steps forward to do it. The younger members of the group are responsible for setting the table, making sure everybody has chopsticks (usually there is just a box of chopsticks on the table), setting out glasses, and pouring the water. The most important role of the evening is left to the elder. The oldest/highest ranking member of the group is expected to pay! If you happen to be the oldest in your group of friends, don't worry, you won't always have to pay - this rule generally only applies to more formal gatherings. At an informal dinner with friends, you may take turns paying, but somebody will almost always pay the whole check. Splitting checks is seen as an oddity of the western world, and looked down upon. But at least there is no tipping!
Pouring Korean Green Tea

It's the younger person's job to pour tea for everyone after the meal.
Photo by: anja_johnson

3. Drink Your Booze!

Along with food, another integral form of bonding in the Republic of Korea is drinking, specifically soju, a clear distilled liquor traditionally made from rice. Modern manufacturing methods can also include potatoes, wheat or tapioca. It has a similar taste to vodka, but its a bit sweeter and usually only around 20% alcohol.  Soju is by far the preferred method of intoxication in Korea, and in 2004 it was estimated that over 3 billion small green bottles of the liquor were sold. Beer is also popular, and whiskey is reserved for special occasions. At dinner functions, soju will always be present. You will be poured a shot, and you should do so for the other person as well. If you are not the drinking type, you should still accept a glass, but you don't have to drink it (just a token sip or pretend to drink if it makes you more comfortable). If you are the drinking type, you will be welcomed with open arms. At some point the elder or "leader" of the group may come around and want to drink with you. Pour him/her a small drink (they have to drink with everyone remember), and they will pour one for you. If you don't want another shot of soju, leave some in your glass, because as soon as you empty it, somebody is bound to fill it back up. Germaphobes beware! Keep an eye on your glass as they seem to move around the table, or you may find that your glass has been re-purposed at some point in the night.
Soju Korea

Bottoms up! Photo by Graham Hills.

4. Mind your P's and Q's

There are a variety of table manners that can be considered rude in Korea which a foreigner might not even consider. For example, sticking your chopsticks into a bowl of rice. Here are a few more.
  • If you are not using your chopsticks you can lay them parallel across the top of your dish.
  • Your rice bowl should never leave the table, resist the urge to pick it up and bring it closer to your mouth.
  • Wait until the "Elder" picks up his/her chopsticks before you begin.
  • Don't handle the "community food" with your personal chopstick. Meat on the grill should be flipped with the provided tongs.
  • Similarly, don't pick meat directly off the grill with your chopsticks. You can do this with friends at the local Sam-Gyap-Sal restaurant, but for nicer functions you should place meat in your dish using the tongs. (It's ok to use your chopsticks on the side dishes, just try not to touch everything in the process.)
  • Don't blow your nose at the table. If the food is spicy and you must do so, get up and go somewhere else. Turn away before coughing, of course.
  • Don't receive glasses, dishes or other items with one hand. Like everything in Korea, you should use two hands, or else do the "under arm support gesture."
Food South Korea

Yum.

5. Receive your gifts with grace.

Korea is a gift giving society, with many small gifts passed from one to another on an almost daily basis. When meeting new people you can expect to receive a gift (if you bring something as well it will be seen as a plus). However, while the sentiment may be nice, the execution is sometime lacking. Or at least to a western eye. Because gift giving is so prevalent, the gifts are not extravagant, and there is much re-purposing of gifts. The feeling is that the actual gift doesn't matter, but the fact that you received something (anything) is important. Personally, after a whole year in Korea my co-workers decided to throw me a going-away party. When it came time to give me a parting gift, I found myself presented with... a bottle of shampoo. This is a strange parting gift in itself, but it's made all the stranger by the fact that I have a shaved head. Because Korea was previously a poor country, the gifts can sometimes take on a more practical form rather than sentimental. At the Christmas dinner I had to stand up and bow graciously as my principal bestowed upon me a box of socks. Lastly, you should beware that, if you give a gift, it will sometimes provoke the other party into a fit of generosity in order to match your gesture. They may even pick up a random object and present it to you. Upon my arrival in Korea I gave my principal a bottle of wine from California, this spurred him to go over to his own personal fridge and pick me out a similar bottle... thanks! Have you encountered interesting dinner etiquette in your travels, or ever been to a Korean dinner party? We would love to hear about it.