Korea has millennia of history in the art of drinking. With that, a sophisticated set of rules have developed when partaking of the sool. Here are a few pointers about Korean drinking etiquette.
Don’t drink alone
Drinking is a social ritual. We drink a good bit in Korea, but we also socialize a lot. There are a lot of mini laws on social hierarchy and relationships in Korean society in general. Drinking with others is a way to blur the lines a bit and to grease the wheels in relationships. It’s an important ritual and for a long time had been considered crucial in business relationships.
Drinking heavily isn’t considered a problem as long as it’s done in social situations. Drinking alone, though–you must have a problem. For this reason, you would rarely find a traditional bar in Korea with single stools. Korean pubs tend to have tables and booths to accommodate groups. On Korean dramas and movies, the go-to cliche is to have a character drinking alone in a soju tent (or in a blue neon lit whiskey bar if rich) when they’ve hit rock bottom.
Don’t be a lush
There’s a balance here. Even though one may see passed out men in business suits, drinking to the point of no return still gets frowns.
I’ll use an example from a friend of mine. She was asked in a job interview how many bottles of soju she could drink. She answered honestly. Later, she asked the interviewer why that question was there. The interviewer said it was a simple measure of character. If the interviewee said she didn’t drink, she would have a hard time fitting in the office culture. If she said she could drink at least five bottles, then she likely has a problem.
Never pour for yourself
Since drinking is a social ritual, you must take care of your homies. They must take care of you. Pouring your own drink bags you seven years of bad sex (so I’ve heard). I cringe when my table gets a fresh pitcher of beer, and the Korea newbie across from me takes it and pours his own glass.
Stop, stop stop stop stopstopstopstop…. dang!
Always have food
We are a civilized culture. You don’t see me winking when I type this.
You should always have food when enjoying drinks. There are some museums that display the proper set up for traditional drinking tables. In fact, we have a whole separate category of food for drinking: anju. I’d say it’s another word for “pub grub.”
The food you’d eat as anju you wouldn’t eat as a real meal in most cases. For one thing, anju does not include rice. If going out for dinner, and you go to a place that only serves anju–even if in other countries that food is considered normal dinner food–it’s not a proper meal in Korea.
Here’s a tip. If you’re out with your mates in a Korean pub, and you’ve already eaten. You just want to go out for a few drinks. Just order some fries. Get the cheapest thing on the menu. As long as you get something, you are no longer an uncultured barbarian.
Hold your vessel properly when pouring
We show respect for our drinking associates. When someone pours for us, we hold our glass. When the pourer is our elder or social superior (like our boss), we hold our glass with two hands. For bonus points, we hold our head in a slight bow for deference.
This goes both ways. When you’re pouring for a superior, you should hold the vessel with both hands.
A note: it’s considered an honor to reciprocate by pouring for your elder or social superior. Sometimes you’ll see office lackeys scramble to pour the boss’s drink.
Another note: it’s best to do this when you’re just meeting someone to show respect.
When the two parties in pouring have a more casual relationship, one hand is fine, as long as it’s the right hand.
The supported arm
You may see sometimes that instead of holding a glass with two hands, someone holds it with his right hand and uses his left hand to hold his wrist or arm. This is another form of respect dating back to the days when people wore clothing with long loose sleeves. On a proper drinking table, those sleeves could endanger the anju, so both the pourer and the pouree would hold their sleeves back.
Clink, clink, clink
After every pour we toast. It’s a way of saying, “We’re all on this alcoholic journey together, my friends.”
There’s a lot of clinking in Korean restaurants and drinking houses.
Turn away, turn away!
In Nordic and Germanic drinking cultures, you must look everyone in the eye when toasting and drinking. The opposite in Korea.
If you’re drinking in front of an elder-slash-social-superior, you respectfully turn away when drinking. You can even shield your face with your free hand, so they don’t see you having such enjoyment in their presence.
I kid. It is respectful. This is also true for smoking in front of elders.
Never let a glass go empty
Like I said, we take care of our homies. This is a difficult practice at first. You get too involved in conversation and all that anju. After a few times of being shamed that you left your friend’s glass empty, it becomes a paranoid second nature. You will get a Spidey-sense for empty glasses, no matter the state of inebriation.
Only pour into an empty glass
This is where it gets tricky. That means you always have to be on alert. A good friend would be conscious of it and will have a smidgen of booze in his glass until there’s a chance to clink. When there’s a clink, everyone’s focused on glass levels, so it’s easy to see who needs a new pour.
“But what if my glass is empty, and my friend hasn’t noticed.”
One polite passive-aggressive thing to do is to pick up the bottle like you’re going to pour for him. But since you can only pour into an empty glass, your friend has to down his drink first.
Yes. Korean drinking etiquette is designed to get you drunk as quickly as possible.
Screw the rules
Now take most of what I said up here and forget it. No–don’t forget it. After a good many drinks, especially when you’re in casual company, the rules get loosened. You can pour for yourself. You can leave glasses empty. You can pour into half-full glasses. You can face your uncle while you’re sipping.
The purpose of Korean drinking etiquette, just like any etiquette rules in any culture, is to create formal connections to others. It’s a shared ritual that creates social bonds.
Now, excuse me. You haven’t noticed all this time that my glass is empty.