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Table Manners in Seoul

I've been perusing the boards, looking for places to try while I'm in Seoul in a couple of months, when it occurred to me: How does one eat in South Korea without offending others? Can someone give me a hand - I've never been to Seoul and I really don;t want to offend people with my "poor" table manners.


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  1. I can only tell you what my approach has been through decades of facing this on my own and as a corporate and diplomatic spouse - and being faced with some tricky situations.
    Plead ignorance, humbly ask for help and throw yourself on the tender mercies of your dinner companions. I've usually been met with kind laughter that put everyone at ease. They always helped me out, tolerated my awkwardness with good humor and loved telling me about their food and culture. It worked from formal dinners to situations where we ate with our hands.
    Humility and good humor will get you through anything. Trying to fake it never works and only leads to trouble.
    Koreans are fun and warm and you'll have a great time with them.

    1. They don't expect you to know everything so you shouldn't worry too much about it but here are a few basics.

      Unlike Chinese and Japanese, Koreans use spoons to eat rice and soup. Chopsticks are used only for the side dishes.

      When drinking alcohol with elders, make sure you turn your face slightly to the side to drink. This is to show that you respect elders.
      Empty your glass(one shot, they love to say) and fill others when it's empty.
      And lastly, drink like there is no tomorrow.

      1. At the risk of devolving into crude generalizations, I found on my one trip to Korea that the Koreans I met were boisterous, casual, and quickly intimate at the table. On my first night, going downstairs at my fancy hotel for bulgogi, the waitress didn't hesitate to show me how to eat it (even though I knew perfectly well) -- and proceeded to take a lettuce leaf, assemble it with her hands, and hand it back to me. She then nearly held my hands as I assembled the next one. In other settings, dining companions touched me and each other in ways that were totally comfortable and non-sexual in context but would have likely been considered very forward in other cultures.

        Also, I can't think of anywhere else I've been where people eat as much -- and with such gusto -- as Koreans. I went to one very high-end buffet, and to my surprise people were piling their plates high and going back for more. The quantities were appropriate to a low-end Vegas buffet -- but with fantastic food.

        In short, after having spent a week in Japan, where I was quite concerned about not offending people at the table, my concern about not causing offense in Korea quickly dissolved after these experiences put me at ease. It occurred to me that my greatest offense (though perhaps unnoticed by anyone else) was assuming that Korea would be similar to Japan in manners and customs.

        3 Replies
        1. re: david kaplan

          what kills me is that people are so thin there.

          where was the buffet?

          1. re: choctastic

            Baffles me why Koreans aren't heavier. I finally asked someone, and he claims that many people believe that the heat (spice-heat not temperature-heat) of the food keeps people thin. Hmm.

            I couldn't find the name of the buffet or even the part of town -- sorry!

            1. re: david kaplan

              They're thin because they WALK everywhere (except to the subway, etc.) and they don't eat between meals.

          1. I think it also depends on who you are dining with. I'm korean, and when I dine with elders, especially male elders, I always take care to follow certain customs: not eating before the eldest male at the table has begun to eat, offering to pour/refill his drink (always pour with two hands!), et cetera. when I eat with people around my age or most females, it's more casual and warm. and try not to refuse to eat something that's offered to you, if possible... I did that to my grandmother once and I learned later that she was really hurt by my refusal.

            1. Yes good point. I should have made clear that I was there in a business setting and was eating with business contacts. Although we hadn't met before, there were no age or gender differences (we were all professional men in the 30-50 range), which surely contributed to the informality.

              1. Even if the rice bowl isn't too hot to pick up, don't. Unlike in a Chinese or Japanese setting, one doesn't use the rice bowl as a quasi-utensil - it stays on the table.

                1 Reply
                1. re: MikeG

                  I'm not sure if you'll impress people in a Chinese setting if you use the rice bowl as a quasi-utensil. I used to do that years ago and I noticed people looking at me as if they were thinking, "That foreigner eats like a Chinese peasant!"

                2. Thanks! You guys have been so great. I really appreciate how helpful y'all are! Keep the tips coming!

                  Oh, if it helps, I am a female in my late-20s.

                  Thanks again!

                  1. If you ever get a chance, watch Anthony Bourdain's visit to Korea on travel channel. I am sure you can even find it on youtube

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: Monica

                      Eversince the Googlification, Youtube took down all the copyrighted content from their site.

                    2. like everyone said, if you are american (I don't know what you are btw...just assuming) koreans will not expect you to learn proper table manners. However here are a few things to learn.

                      like someone already stated, please do not pick up your rice bowl. Only the chinese and japanese eat their rice this way. It especially sucks when you use a metal bowl. However I only see metal bowls at restaurants.

                      do not stick your chopsticks straight up in your rice. thats pretty much offensive to most asian cultures because it looks like you are honouring the dead

                      do not blow your nose at the table. If you need to blow your nose, then excuse yourself

                      always eat after the oldest person has started eating. wait for them.

                      wear socks when sitting down for a meal. I guess this is why most korean men wear socks with sandals..hahaha.

                      always fill up an older person's glass using 2 hands, they should be served ahead of you. When they serve you, hold the glass with either 2 hands or your left hand grasping your right wrist while you hold the glass (I think this is right? i can't remember....help me out here) and then turn your face away when you drink.

                      don't go digging around in the panchan or kimchi for "special items" and don't leave grains of rice in communal stews or communal panchan.

                      2 very important things: please please please eat your ssam and kimbop in one bite, do not take 2 do not take 3 eat it all in one bite. i promise it tastes better that way! Last but not least, eat all of your rice and food and say thank you at the end of the meal.

                      wow, my rules sound like koreans are uptight but they really aren't. I break these rules allllll the time and hardly anyone notices, especially in an familiar setting like with my parents.

                      have fun and eat everything, koreans are very impressed when americans love korean food

                      10 Replies
                      1. re: bitsubeats

                        Not at all - most of them make sense to me.

                        BTW, I'm Filipino-American. :)

                        1. re: bitsubeats

                          " if you are [not Korean] koreans will not expect you to learn proper table manners" That's important. In some countries, they think like that; he's taken the time to learn our culture and he deserves respect, who cares if he makes a few mistakes? But in other countries, you can study for years and make one trivial mistake and everyone will be thinking, "the dumb foreigner made a mistake hahaha!"

                          1. re: bitsubeats

                            "don't leave grains of rice in communal stews or communal panchan."

                            Could you elaborate? I'm not sure what this means.

                            1. re: omotosando

                              Make sure you don't have rice on your spoon or chopsticks before putting them into communal stews or side dishes (panchan) -- then they float around and it looks gross, kind of like slopping the French dressing into the ranch dressing on a salad bar.

                              1. re: Das Ubergeek

                                Hmmn, do Koreans not follow the Japanese custom of reaching into communal bowls with the "non-eating" end of the chopstick? That would seem to do away with the possibility of depositing a stray piece of rice into the communal bowl.

                                1. re: omotosando

                                  Koreans consider the "blunt" end of the chopstick unfit for food consumption, it would be like sticking the handle of your fork into a communal dish.

                                  You either have to be careful about your chopsticks and your mouth, or you have to ask for communal chopsticks.

                                  1. re: Das Ubergeek

                                    Wow, this is all very confusing to me.

                                    1. What are communal chopsticks? Do you use one set of chopsticks to serve and one to eat?

                                    2. If you don't have communal chopsticks and if you can't stick the blunt end of the chopstick in the food, don't you risk sharing germs (which, is why, I thought the Japanese use the blunt end to serve).

                                    1. re: omotosando

                                      Communal chopsticks means there's one set in front of each dish for serving one's self in addition to one set per person for eating.

                                      As for the second point, I guess they never thought it was a big deal to be stabbing multiple chopsticks from various mouths into dishes... depends on how one was brought up. Besides, you've been rubbing your hands all over the blunt end of the chopsticks... is that really that much better?

                                    2. re: Das Ubergeek

                                      really, nobody ever said anything to me when i put the blunt end into something. oh crap.

                                      1. re: choctastic

                                        I only found out after I'd done it and my Korean friend took me aside privately after the dinner and explained the faux pas.

                            2. Eat your rice! Everything else is in a supporting role, and your host will be concerned/mystified, if you don't eat the central element of the meal.

                              1. Yes, of course, but even there they won't be "offended" the way they would if a native did something "offensive."

                                1. Thanks for posting these tips, everyone. I will try to remember them for a trip to visit a relative in Seoul in the spring!