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Korean Table Manners

We know in America that there are table manners whether we follow them or not. My dad worked at the embassy in Morocco, and my mother tried to be a very proper military wife, and she taught me the manners that Americans and British must use at the table. I was taught to put my napkin in my lap, and never tuck it in to use it like a bib. I was taught which spoon and which fork to use when.  I saw people putting their peas on their knives when I was a little girl in England, but I was taught never to do that.  I was taught to primarily use my fork, and only use the spoon if I couldn’t use the fork. I was never to drink out of a bowl, but always use my spoon to finish off the soup or cereal.   I was taught not to burp if I could help it, and if I did to cover my mouth and say, “excuse me.”. etc. etc.  Other cultures have particular manners they insist on at the table too. Here are some of the manners they ask that people abide by in Korea.

two women sitting on dockside
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Many times, Koreans sit in the floor when they eat, but it doesn’t mean they don’t have manners even when they sit in the floor around a small table.  To begin with, posture is very important when they eat.  They don’t lie down around that table. They must sit upright.

bowl chopsticks dish food
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This picture shows how the Japanese told me to put my chopsticks down when I wasn’t using them, resting on the edge of the bowl or plate.

 

Korean use both chop sticks and a spoon for eating unlike Japan who uses only chop sticks.  The Korean table manners say to never use the chop sticks and the spoon at the same time.  As far as those chop sticks, in Japan, you never put them straight up and down in the middle of your rice bowl because it is something they do when someone is dead. I am not sure if you are supposed to do this in Korea or not, but I have never seen anyone do it, and since I know Korea and Japan have many similar customs, I never put the chop sticks straight up and down in the middle of the rice bowl.

close up photography of a woman in black nail polish holding a mug
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When the drinks are served here in Korea, the younger people serve the older people.  There are rules for this too. A young person is never to hand an older person a cup with just one hand. They are to hold that cup with two hands. Otherwise, it is rude.  When you go out to eat with Koreans to a traditional Korean restaurant, the waitress will bring you a big bottle of water.  If you want some of that water, it is only polite to serve your friends first.  Usually, when I go,  Koreans pick the bottle up and serve everyone before they serve themselves.

bowl of food
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As for the rice bowl or the soup bowl, as an American, I was taught to never drink my soup.  When I went to Japan, they said everyone drinks their soup because they don’t normally use spoons.  That was hard for me to get used to because my mother had really trained me hard and was very particular.  When I came to Korea, I assumed they would have the same rule as the Japanese, but not so.  In Korea, you are not supposed to pick your dishes up to eat or drink out of them at all, not the rice dish, nor the soup dish.  In Japan, they even pick the rice dish up.  The Japanese also slurp their noodles in their noodle soup, and my mother had taught me never to slurp. However, in Japan, it is considered a good thing to slurp. It means you like the food.  I have learned something about Koreans, though.  The Koreans will tell you to never pick your bowl or any dish up to eat out of it, but if they think no one is looking or no one cares, they will do it.

short red hair woman blowing her nose
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There is another big difference between America and Korea.  If you are American, and your nose begins running, you just take out a tissue and wipe your nose. You don’t want that stuff on your face.  If you think your nose needs it, you will blow your nose too because you don’t want that stuff running down your face. However, the Koreans can’t abide people wiping or blowing their nose, especially at the table.  If you are around Koreans and your nose is runny, they would rather see you just let it run than to blow it in front of them.  If your nose runs when you are around Koreans, the best thing to do is just to excuse yourself, go into the restroom, and blow your nose.

white toilet paper
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I have seen rolls of toilet paper on the wall next to my table in Korean restaurants.

 

The Koreans do something very strange at the table that we would never do.  They put a roll of toilet paper on the table.  They use toilet paper as their napkins.  They don’t take any and put it in their lap, but if their mouth needs wiped or if someone spills, that toilet paper is there to take care of it.

silver spoon near silver kitchen knife
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When I came to Korea, I learned a new way of cutting my meat too.  Can you imagine not having a knife and a fork so you can cut your meat? In Japan, I learned to use one hand and manipulate my chopsticks to cut my meat, and you have to be very dexterous to do it. However, the Koreans were much more practical than the Japanese. They don’t try to cut their meat with one hand when using chopsticks.  They use one chopstick in each hand.  They anchor the meat like we do with a fork with one chopstick.  They use the other chopstick and slice the meat like we do with a knife.  It is much easier than the Japanese way, and if the Koreans see me doing it the Japanese way, they are amazed.  I actually like the Korean way better because it is easier.

It helps when you travel to learn the customs of the people where you are. You don’t want to offend people so they are hard to make friends with.  If you blow your nose at the table, they will be 100% grossed out!  If you pick your dish up, they will forgive you because even though they aren’t supposed to, many of them do it.  Even though I don’t know for sure about the chop sticks standing up in the bowl, I still don’t do it.  I eat with Koreans everyday, especially now that I have a Korean son in law.  Maybe you will have the chance to make Korean friends and eat with them too. When you eat with them, try to follow these rules.

 

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2 thoughts on “Korean Table Manners”

  1. Very interesting and well written. When I travelled to Africa, I learned that many cultures eat with their right hand only. It was difficult for my left handed son.

    1. My older sister is left handed, and she has had to adapt many times. It isn’t easy for left handed people, but my sister just learned to accept the fact that she had to adapt.

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