At the Table

Korean restaurants usually have low tables where guests sit on the floor to eat, though many restaurants will have a table or two with chairs. Of course, western-style and upper class restaurants mainly have tables and chairs to dine in. Sitting cross-legged on the floor for at least an hour’s dining can be a pain at first, but it will get easier for you as time goes on. Koreans usually use a spoon for eating rice and soups, and chopsticks for noodles or side dishes. Normally most Koreans eat using their right hands, though it is in no way considered rude to use your left.

Generally, the right hand is used for drinking. You may also notice that if the younger person is pouring with their right hand, they will place their left hand on the right side of his body under their right arm. This custom originated in the olden days when Korean clothing had very wide long sleeves that draped down when the arms were raised. To avoid having the sleeve get in the way while pouring, the left arm would swing to the right to hold the right sleeve out of the way while the right arm is used to pour.

Avoid sticking your chopsticks in your rice as this means the food is reserved for the dead. Instead, lay the chopsticks across the top of the rice bowl. Koreans also do not usually lift the rice bowl off of the table when they eat. Blowing your nose during a meal is considered very rude and will usually earn you many stern glances from other patrons. Shoes are always left at the door.

Koreans eat communally which means that, except for their own bowl of rice, all food is placed in separate dishes in the center of the table and everyone takes from the dishes as they eat. There is usually one or two main dishes consisting of a soup dish and a meat dish, with all others being smaller side dishes of all types of food. This sharing of food together means very much to Koreans, as they believe that the sharing of food and alcohol brings people closer to one another and is often the basis for building closer personal and business relationships.

Everyone usually waits to begin the meal until the eldest or most senior person has started eating. At home, once the father begins, everyone digs in whether or not everyone has seated and is ready. If there are too many people for all to eat at once, the men will eat first and the women will eat after they are done. Once a person has finished eating, they usually have a glass of water and leave the table without much ceremony. In a restaurant or more formal setting however, people will always wait till everyone is seated and no one will not leave the table until everyone has finished. Once everyone has finished eating, everyone usually gets up and leaves the table quite abruptly. There is rarely any lingering after the meal.

Westerners may find that Koreans tend to make much more noises when eating, especially when eating noodles. A really big, loud slurping noise is often enough to give a foreigner shivers downs his/her spine, but in Korea this noise means that the food is so delicious that the eater just can’t wait to get it down. Koreans also tend to put a lot more food in their mouths at one time, so much in fact that they sometimes look more like gophers then humans. It can look quite comical.


Expressing Affection

Boyfriends and girlfriends show very little affection for each other in public. Kissing is quite uncommon, for it usually means the relationship is very serious and will likely lead to marriage. Contrary to this, however, friends (people of the same age) show quite a bit of affection for each other in public. It is not uncommon for both men and women to hold hands or walk arm-in-arm when walking down the street, dance together, or touch each other’s hair or face.


Passing/Receiving Items

When passing something to or receiving something from another person, particularly someone of higher social stature or of greater age, good manners dictate that a younger or lower in stature person use two hands, while the older or higher in stature person may give or take using just one. For example, when tea or alcohol is poured, the person who does the pouring uses two hands and likewise, the person holding the cup holds the cup with two hands. Also, when a younger person drinks with an older person, it is good manners for the younger person to turn to the side so as not to face the older person while drinking. Regardless of age or social stature, people who are not familiar with each other always two hands to give or receive items, pour alcohol or shake hands.


Respect For Age

Respect must be shown to someone older that you, even if it is by as little as one day. Younger people do not address older people by their given names. For example, a girl addresses her older brother as “oppa” and older sister as “onni,” but may address her younger brother or sister by their given names. A boy addresses his older brother as “hyung” and his older sister as “nuna.” A non-married woman may be addressed as “agashi” and a married woman as “ajima”. All men may be addressed as “ajushi”.

Girls sometimes call their boyfriends “oppa”, which means older brother.

Since age is important in determining hierarchy, it is very common to ask someone their age shortly after meeting. In Korea, being the same age means that you are automatically “friends”, which means that terms of respect can be dropped and demeanors can be much more relaxed.