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.
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.
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.
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.
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.