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South Korea Customs & Etiquettes


Koreans have their own set of social rules that they follow. If you understand these rules, you will have much more success at doing business, making good impressions and making friends.

Korean Dining

Korean restaurants usually have a communal section with tables, although private rooms are available where guests sit on the floor. Sitting on the floor with legs crossed for at least an hour's dining and business can be a pain, but it will give you a glimpse of traditional Korean dining ceremonies. Koreans usually use a spoon for eating rice, and chopsticks for noodles or side dishes. Only right hands are used to hold a spoon or chopsticks. Blowing your nose during a meal can be one of the most embarrassing things you can do in Korea.

Manners and Table Settings

A long time ago throughout Korea, Koreans used to have different table settings based upon the occasion at hand. There was of course the main dish and then various side dishes. Although traditional table settings are not as common for the average meal formal table settings are still used for formal situations such as a child's 100th day celebration from birth, an elder's 60th birthday, a wedding, or in some cases, memorial services.

The average and everyday table setting is called pansang. This breaks down into a 3, 5, 7, 9, or 12 chop. In this case the term "chop" with a long O, means side dish. (i.e. 7 course meal as an example). Instead of the word “course”, the word “chop” is used. Typically things like rice, soup, kimchi and sauces are not counted as an item in the chop manifest. A 12 chop meal would usually be reserved for very formal situations and was seen years ago at the tables of royalty.

South Korean families usually eat rice at every meal, some soup and maybe 4 side dishes. From each place setting starting on the left are placed rice, soup, spoon and chopsticks. Main courses like beef, stews and side dishes are in the centre of he table for all to share and this is quite common even today. South Koreans believe that sharing food brings people closer together and in all reality, it seems to work. Although some South Korean restaurants will offer separate bowls and plates. Unlike the Chinese, South Koreans do not hold their bowls or plates in their hands while eating.

Pouring Drinks at Tables

South Koreans are very formal when drinking at a table or gathering. These practices may date back hundreds of years or more as Korean history dates back just over 2,500 years. Rich in tradition, these drinking and serving practices are an important part of etiquette. In South Korea, it is very common to see South Koreans offer glasses of liquor to each other rather than pouring their own. If someone offers you an empty liquor glass, you are expected to hold it out toward them and receive a full glass. Drink it all and then return it to the person who offered it to you. Juniors always keep the glasses of seniors full. If a senior offers a glass to a junior, the junior should accept the glass with both hands and consume the drink with the head turned toward the side so as not to face the senior directly. When pouring for anyone as a general rule, it is always a good idea, and polite to cup the right arm or elbow with the left hand while pouring with the right arm.

Other Pointers

• Don't write a Korean name in red! If you do, it means they are dead. This is not recommended if you are trying to make friends.

• Don't leave your chopsticks sticking into a dish. A spoon sticking downright into the rice bowl is also not a good sign, since that's how Koreans set up the dishes for their passed ancestors.

• Do not drink from your soup bowl!

• Eating rice with your spoon is polite. Actually Korea is one of the few countries where eating rice with your chopsticks is considered rather rude, mostly by the elder Koreans. This is not the case in Japan or China, where they usually eat rice with their chopsticks. However, eating rice with chopsticks is more accepted among the younger generation.

• Don't lift dishes up from the table. (This rule, too, is widely ignored by Korean youth.)

• Depending on the restaurant, you should remove your shoes. Place them near the door or in a shoe shelf. You shouldn't have to worry about anyone stealing them; no one ever does. Hence, when visiting a Korean home, always remove your shoes!

• One person will pay for everyone's meal. However, people usually take turns doing this. Always bring enough money with you and offer to pay at least once.

• But most of all, Koreans are generally very interested in foreigners. Most of them will look at you out of interest, not because you're eating the wrong way. So don't be self-conscious of whether you're doing something right or wrong. Just use your common sense of politeness and good manners, and everything will be fine.





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