Three Things Thursday

This week, three things….


The Namdaemun Gate

…I’ve learned about etiquette.

Thing 1: It isn’t impolite to ask a lady her age. It isn’t impolite to ask anybody their age. In fact, you run the risk of being extremely impolite if you don’t know how old everyone around you is. Many social interactions depend on a carefully calculated hierarchy and age is a key deciding factor in your placement, so don’t be shy, and don’t lie!

Thing 2 is dependent on knowing Thing 1 and it’s all about my new favourite tipple; soju. Soju is a social drink, bought in bottles and drunk in shots. Lots of shots. Lots of etiquette.

First of all, know everyone’s age. If you are all the same age, then fine, no worries, drink as normal. If you’ve all known each other since childhood, see above. However, if you are friendly but there are a) people in the group you haven’t all known since childhood or b) people in the group of different ages, then take note.

The first rule of drinking is: no one fills their own glass.

The second rule of drinking is: no one fills their own glass.

Subsequent rules of drinking are as follows: It doesn’t matter if you are pouring for someone younger or older than you (although you should always make sure the elders at the table have full glasses first), but what is important is that if you are pouring for someone older than you, you should pour with both hands. This doesn’t always mean grasping the bottle for dear life, but an elegant gesture whereby one hand pours, and the second hand gently supports the pouring arm. If you are pouring for someone younger, don’t worry – you’ve got the upper hand, so to speak. However, young blood, don’t forget to receive your elder and better’s gesture of munificence by holding your shot glass with both hands!

In fact, my rule of thumb for giving or receiving anything from anyone is that it’s safer to do it two-handed for the sake of good manners which, as I was frequently reminded when young, cost nothing. Change from your newspaper? Two hands. Homework papers from your students? Two hands. Fifth glass of whisky from your boss? Definitely two hands.

You will have realised that if someone has got hold of the bottle and is politely pouring away, there is going to be at least one glass they can’t fill: their own. It is someone’s job to wrestle the bottle from their grasp – WWE style if necessary, what’s a small haymaker between colleagues as long as no one has to pour their own drink? I latched on to this task with some gusto as it’s the fun bit and can involve a friendly elbow in the face if required.

The glasses are refilled all round, so if you’re not feeling up to the pace, make sure you take your time draining your glass. Once it’s empty, it beckons. Then at drinking time age comes into play again. Younger guests should politely turn their heads away from the table when they drink.

Of course, as a waygook (foreigner) and new arrival at that, any unintentional misdemeanors have so far been kindly waved away. My first meal out in mixed company followed my first adventure with the Seoul Runsplorers – that’s right – people who like running and like exploring and have decided to undertake their exploring at running pace. It’s awesome! There’s no bonding experience like running a sweaty 5 kilometers round a former World Cup stadium and along the side of a beautiful river on a crisp, below zero afternoon to break all boundaries and make friends fast. Food was shared and drinks were poured, and it seemed to be the most hilarious thing anyone had ever seen when someone poured two-handed for someone younger than themselves! Oh, how we laughed.

Thing 3. My final piece of etiquette info is an interesting incidental which I learned during a discussion of all the many signs and signifiers of status and respect. The polite gesture of supporting one arm by the wrist or forearm in fact comes from a practical concern: traditional Korean dress involved some elaborate long sleeves and this gesture merely served to keep them out of people’s food.

From tiny acorns, eh?


3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Kang Ju-won (강주원)
    Jan 03, 2014 @ 12:42:20

    I really enjoyed reading this! I think you are right about the age-asking. It’s imperative to quickly figure out where you stand amongst the people gathered. On the other hand, I would argue it could potentially be impolite to ask where a person is originally from (in Korea, at least). I think it’s interesting because the opposite could be true in foreign countries. Age-Impolite vs. Hometown-Okay.



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