- Bowing to anyone who is older than you
- Not lifting your spoon until the eldest person does at the dining table
- Using both hands when receiving something from somebody older
- Not making direct eye contact with elders/people in higher positions
- And so on…
The list of etiquettes and manners that are deeply unique to our Korean culture, is simply endless.
If you have been to Korea, or have studied about Korean culture before, you’d know that South Korea is a country of meticulous etiquette and manners, especially between older and younger generations. So today, we will explore some of the most well-known and necessary manners and etiquettes to be followed in different environments. However, before we get into specific manners, it is important to keep in mind that:
- Confucianism has been the dominant philosophy throughout the Joseon dynasty period,
- it chiefly valued showing respect to the elders,
- the philosophy still plays a huge role in modern society.
Our first environment is the dining table. All cultures have their own unique dining etiquettes. For example, Muslim people will say “Bismillah” before eating, Spanish and Latino/a people will never rush off the table when they are done, Japanese people will slurp their noodles to show they are enjoying them, etc. Korea also has its vast set of manners to be followed at the dining table. Here are some of them:
- Always receive a dish or glass using both hands.
- Never start eating until the oldest person at the table lifts the spoon.
- Younger person always pours the water and distributes the glasses around.
- Do not leave your utensils stuck into the rice.
Yes, I understand that the fourth one may sound a little strange. It did to me when I first told not to do it by my mother. 😄 First of all, understand that Korean rice is extremely sticky, so utensils do get stuck if you poke them into the rice. The reason why such behaviour is not allowed on the table is because of the belief/superstition that the spirits or ghosts around you would come to your meal and eat it with the spoon/chopsticks that are stuck into the rice! Yes, it is an absurd superstition, but just like all other superstitions, it is still being followed for no genuine reason. 😄
Another environment is when you are at the drinking table. Drinking is a fundamental part of the Korean culture. (Some say it has become so ingrained in our customs because of the excessive stress people get from the hectic modern lifestyle.) So, you might expect such occasion to be a place where you can be as free as you want and release all your stress, but sadly that may not be the case if you are the younger one at the table. Again, one small point to keep in mind is that in Korea, the bottle of alcohol is brought to the table, and it is for the customers to serve the drink for each other. Here are some must-manners:
- A seat from which one can see the entrance and lean against the wall behind is the best seat. Let the oldest person sit there.
- Never decline the first glass of alcohol. Otherwise, you will end up ruining the atmosphere.
- When offering alcohol to an elderly, get up to your knees, support your right arm with your left, and pour gently. Once you have filled the glass, hand over the bottle and offer your glass to be filled.
- When drinking alcohol in front of an older person, turn sideways so as to not face the elder when you drink. It is considered very rude to openly drink in the presence of older people.
As you have learned from above, respect for the elderly is an overarching idea that defines the Korean culture. Other than the manners discussed above, there are so many more etiquettes to be followed when engaging in conversation with elderly in general.
After having read this post, one may think, “Oh, what a bad place Korea is for younger people to live!” However, I would like to remind you that all such manners that sound weird come from people’s effort to show respect to their elders.
“They may look strict and impractical, but like all cultures, these are what define Korean culture and these are what make it uniquely beautiful.”
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