A Crash Course in Korean Dining Etiquette

Written by  Lynn McDonnell October 25, 2011

Living in South Korea as an English teacher for 18 months, I became well aware of the strict etiquette in existence in South Korean society since the days of Confucianism.

Coming in a close second to code-ridden Japan, life in Korea is often dictated by do’s and do-not’s, should-I’s and should-I-not’s. As most social occasions and even work situations revolve around eating and drinking, it is no surprise that many policies apply at the dinner table and even bar table. I assumed that the best way to learn these rules and avoid too much humiliation was to observe and copy. Clearly a flawed system, it was inevitable that I encountered many humiliating and enlightening situations whereby my own faux pas was taken light heartedly and often laughed about. Here are a few examples I encountered within a week.

1) Never pour your own drink when with company: Coming from western society where one orders, purchases, pours and consumes their own drinks, it was natural for me to proceed to do so. Big no-no; this was faux pas number one. It is the responsibility of the most senior person at your table to order the drinks, pour them and quite often (as is the case with soju, a native drink comparable to vodka) to determine when they are drank. In such circumstances, you may have no control over how inebriated the night becomes (depending on your inert sneakiness, of course).

2) Never tip: Unless in a large non-Korean chain restaurant, the action of tipping your host will result in the staff running after you out of the restaurant to give you back your money (a nice, honest habit that will ensure the host saves face but resulted in me being utterly humiliated in a busy street).

3) Never set your own setting: When in a restaurant, it is very rare for chopsticks, spoons and napkins to be set. Often found in a box at the side of the table, it is the responsibility of the person closest to the box to distribute all necessary devices to the table ¬– not in a hurried manner but with as much respect as possible, with two hands holding the chopsticks. These hand and arm gestures are prominent across Korean society and can easily offend when done incorrectly.

4) Receive gifts with grace: Growing up in Ireland, receiving gifts was always an awkward interaction of ‘Oh, you shouldn’t have’s and ‘It’s only something small.’ With many Korean holidays revolving around the action of gift-giving, it is necessary to receive them with a smile, a bow and a thank-you. Even if the gift is a six-month supply of seaweed or a hamper of spam cans.

Needless to say, unless you want to end up inebriated with strangers with no cutlery to eat your dinner or to be chased out of a restaurant by your well-tipped host, it is best to follow by example. I continued to learn of various cultural habits the hard way (and sometimes the easy way). There is no faster way to learn than to stand in the way of a middle-aged woman at the top of the social hierarchy trying to board a train. As a westerner in the East, I was not only overwhelmed by the abundance of opportunities for faux-pas but also humbled by the constant help and instruction that I received in overcoming them. Although Confucianism may be dwindling in Korean society, it has left behind an interesting society whereby respect is not only expected but also guaranteed to each and every individual.

By Lynn McDonnell

This is the winning article from the Verge Storyboard for the week of Oct. 24, 2011. To submit your own story, click here. 

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