If you’re planning on embarking on a trip to Korea in the near future, you’re in for a treat! During your trip, you’ll undoubtedly spend your days shopping, wandering the streets of Seoul sightseeing and people watching, and enjoying all of the amazing Korean food that the country has to offer. If you make an effort to talk to people, you may even make some new friends to share meals with! Koreans are extremely friendly and open to helping tourists make the most of their trip.
If you really want to impress someone whilst in Korea, just speaking their language won’t do the trick. Plenty of people that are visiting Korea know enough of the Korean language to pick up common phrases and use them in conversation during their trip. However, by showing them your practical knowledge of the Korean table manners will surely get anyone to like you! Who doesn’t like a well-mannered dinner guest?
When you are out eating with Koreans, or especially if you have been invited to their house, knowing your way around Korean table manners is an incredibly nifty way to show your respect towards the local culture. Here are some Korean table manners you should definitely be aware of:
Korean Table Manner #1: Remember Rank
If you’re spending time working in Korea either temporarily or on a permanent basis, you’ll likely be going out to meals with your colleagues on a semi-regular basis. Eating out with coworkers is a great day to facilitate team bonding and to decompress after a long work day.
Whenever you are out for a company outing involving food, it’s important to be seated based on the social ranking of the group. The younger or lower ranked member of the group you are, the closer to the door you should sit, and only after your elders have already sat down. As you can probably guess, this is also true if you’re visiting the family of a significant other or a friend — rank refers to social rank as well as rank within a professional environment.
Korean Table Manner #2: Oldest Eats First
Once you’re seated for dinner, it’s also common courtesy to let those older than you to begin eating first before you get started on enjoying your delicious meal. That’s why Koreans make an effort to ask your age early on — it gives them an idea of where you stand in situations like this, so they can interact with you without disrespecting you or making you uncomfortable. That way, they know how to treat you in these types of situations.
Korean Table Manner #3: Tell That You Will Eat Well
Before taking your first bite, it’s important to say that you will eat well, as a way of acknowledging that you are looking forward to the meal you are about to have. In Korean, this is expressed with the words Jalmeokgesseumnida (잘먹겠습니다), which in English would translate to ‘I will eat well’. This is a kind compliment to the chef, and it’s always nice to show gratitude! Sprinkle this phrase into your Korean dining experience and impress your host.
Korean Table Manner #4: Match Eating Speed
Try to manage eating at the same pace as those around you. If you notice that you are going to be finished with your food while everyone is still on their first few bits, you might want to slow it down. Trust me, we know how great food can be in Korea, but that doesn’t mean you have to finish it super quickly! That can make it look like you’re trying to rush the dinner and you’d rather not be there or you have somewhere else to be.
On the other hand, if you’ve barely touched your food and everyone else is almost done, it’s time to chow down! If you eat too slowly, your host may think that you’re not enjoying the meal and you’re trying to put off each bite.
It may seem like a lot to think about, but I promise that once you’ve dined a couple of times in Korea it becomes second nature and it won’t take away from you enjoying your meal. Just stay aware of what other guests are doing and make sure you’re at a similar pace and it’ll become second nature!
Korean Table Manner #5: No Lifting
Unlike in many other Asian countries, in Korea it’s unusual to lift your rice or soup bowl while eating your meal. Please keep it on the table throughout the meal, and use your spoon to eat the rice instead of chopsticks.
It can be tempting to lift your soup bowl to slurp up the remaining liquid if it’s especially delicious, but as you’ve probably guessed, that doesn’t look great when you’re at a dinner party. Don’t worry, your spoon will be just find at getting those last few bites into your mouth! No lifting required.
Korean Table Manner #6: Utensil Etiquette
When dining in Korea, there is even specific utensil etiquette that you should observe. You should hold your spoon and chopsticks in different hands. Also, try using only one utensil at the time — this usually means that you’ll decrease the likelihood of spilling food on yourself as well. Multitasking isn’t always best when it comes to eating and enjoying a meal!
Korean Table Manner #7: Big and Small Plates
A lot of the Korean dishes are served on one big platter and served among all the eaters, so take advantage of the small individual plate you have for eating the food. Don’t eat directly from the large plate, no matter how tempting the dish is! Make sure each dish is served onto your smaller plate before getting started on the meal.
Korean Table Manner #8: Alcoholic Drink Etiquette
Especially in the case of an alcoholic drink, pour drinks for others first, and let someone else pour yours! If you see an elder with an empty glass, try to fill it up as soon as possible as a common courtesy and a sign of respect. If your elders offer you a drink, unless there is an extreme reason why you cannot drink, don’t refuse it. Graciously accept and enjoy!
As for actual drink pouring etiquette, hold your cup with both hands when you have alcohol being poured into it to prevent the cup from being knocked over and spilling the liquid. Also, hold the bottle with both hands when it’s your turn to pour the alcohol to help ensure that you won’t spill anything on the table while you’re pouring. Alternatively, you can also place one of your hands under your pouring arm when pouring or lightly over your elbow if you are the one receiving the drink — both options are perfectly acceptable and respectful.
Korean Table Manner #9: Chopstick Placement
What is also considered quite rude among Koreans is if you stick your chopsticks straight into your bowl of rice (not to mention that it looks pretty silly). This is because it resembles what happens at a Korean funeral ceremony, which you definitely don’t want to think about at dinnertime!
Keep your chopsticks on top of the bowl or beside the bowl on the table instead to avoid a faux pas. Korean chopsticks don’t typically come wrapped in paper, but often there will be a small glass or ceramic item for you to rest your chopsticks on.
If that isn’t the case, you can rest your chopsticks with the end of the chopsticks on the edge of your plate or your bowl to keep them from directly touching the table. It’s advisable to put your utensils back on the table once you’re finished with your meal to indicate that you’re done, although a lot of Koreans also leave them on top of their plates or inside the bowl, provided that it’s empty.
As far as your napkin goes, when you’re finished with your meal, place your used napkin folded on top of the table. This is an additional indication to your host that you’re done eating and satisfied.
Korean Table Manner #10: Timing Your Finish
Finish your meal only once the oldest ones have finished with their meals, and try your hardest to finish everything in your bowl or plate. The timing of the meal entirely revolves around rank, so you’re not off the hook after you let the eldest guests start eating first.
Stay aware of how quickly they’re eating their meals, and make sure you time it so you finish after them (but don’t be TOO far behind). It sounds like a lot of work, but I swear it’ll be second nature to you in no time!
Korean Table Manner #11: Use a Clean Spoon for Serving Side Dishes
If you’re eating a meal in Korea and side dishes are ordered, chances are that you’ll be sharing the sides with other guests at the table. Along with the etiquette rules above about who to serve first, you should also be aware of what you’re serving with. For everyone’s sake, make sure you use a clean spoon when serving the sides — otherwise, you’ll inadvertently get your old food from the dirty spoon mixed in with the side dish (which is never fun).
Korean Table Manner #12: Don’t Extend Your Reach Too Far
Korean food is absolutely delicious, and it can be tempting to reach across the table and grab a dish from the opposite side of where you’re seated. Not so fast! It’s okay to reach forward and grab dishes that are close to you, but it’s considered poor manners to extend your arm across the table and reach for dishes that are further away. As a general rule, try not to extend your arm so far that your elbow passes the edge of the table.
Korean Table Manner #13: Be Aware of Toasting Dos and Don’ts
Everyone loves a good toast, and this is true of Korean diners as well! A toast is a great opportunity to be warm and express gratitude. If you happen to be the guest of honor, you’ll be expected to toast sometime during the dinner and more likely than not, the host will as well. Keep it short and sweet, and make sure to drink from your glass afterwards! If you are not the host or the guest of honor, it is not required for you to make a toast (and may seem out of place, especially if the host and guest of honor already intended to toast during the dinner — you don’t want to steal anyone’s thunder!).
Korean Table Manner #14: There is a Correct Way to Eat Rice (Yes, really)
Throughout your stay in Korea, you’re going to eat a lot of rice — it’s served with most meals, as it pairs well with truly anything and provides a great canvas for more flavorful sauce and protein elements of Korean dishes. It’s also a great way to combat too much spice in a dish. It is not considered rude to not finish every grain of rice, so don’t feel pressure. Eat what you’re comfortable eating and no more.
You can also feel free to mix in a sauce with the rice or eat it directly with a meal rather than a side dish on its own, but this isn’t the case in all Asian countries so think twice before doing this in a country like Japan. And remember, do not raise the rice bowl! It’s more acceptable to have a serious stoop while you’re eating than it is to pick up the bowl of rice you’re eating from.
Other Korean Table Manners to Consider:
- Do not, under any circumstances, blow your nose at the table. Nobody wants to be thinking of snot as they’re enjoying a delicious meal (not to mention the unpleasant noise and germs that come hand in hand with blowing your nose). If you need to cough or sneeze, turn your head so that you aren’t facing the table.
- Don’t be afraid to eat a lot. Especially in the company of older generation Koreans, they will be very delighted to see how much you can eat. They come from times when food wasn’t as accessible, so it’s nice for them to see you not have to struggle in the same way. It’s also indication that you’re a fan of the host’s cooking, which is always a good thing!
- Want to seem extra polite? Beat others to the punch by being the first one to set up everyone’s utensils and napkins, and pour water into their glasses or cups, and so on. If you appear eager to help and serve, it comes across as thoughtful and very respectful.
- In restaurants where you grill your own meat and stir your own soup, usually one person of the party is given the duty to be in charge of the grilling and the stirring. Cheer everyone up by volunteering! Go the extra mile and even give out the portions to all the people out eating with you — it’ll be considered going above and beyond, which is smiled upon.
- Sharing is caring! Though there are plenty of instances where instead of ordering one big pot of food, you’l get several different dishes (you ordering what you would prefer and the others ordering what they are in the mood for). However, it’s still normal among Koreans to share all the food in front of them with everyone they are eating with. Don’t be shy to offer them a taste of your meal, and do accept it if they offer you a taste of theirs.
- You might also want to thank your hosts after the meal. A good way to express this is the word Jalmeokeosseumnida (잘먹었습니다). Literally translated, this means ‘I ate well’. Being gracious is huge in Korean dining culture, so make sure you incorporate this into your conversation at the end of the evening — it’ll be appreciated.
At first, these tips might seem like a lot to handle, but it’s rather easy to remember and get accustomed to them — you’ll find that they become second nature before you know it. And now that you are the master of them, you can impress anyone socially when you’re in Korea! Got invited to a company dinner? No problem, you’ll be a star! Planning to attend a Korean Thanksgiving meal with your friend’s extended family? You’re all set and everyone will love you!
You’ll also be sure to have a much better time at these dinners knowing that you’re performing well socially — there will be no anxiety about whether or not you’re on the same page as everyone else because you’re coming prepared. It will be a relief and will help you enjoy yourself!
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