Drinking culture in South Korea is a big part of life, and it seems like everyone in Korea drinks. It’s so omnipresent, that sometimes it can feel more like it’s part of your job! Why exactly is this? Well, let’s find out! (Plus tips on how to refuse.)
1) It’s always been important!
Back in the olden days (super specific, I know), Koreans used to drink alcohol to celebrate important holidays. On these holidays, people would drink alcohol during rituals as a way to show respect to their elders and ancestors. Drinking in Korea was more an obligation than something you did for fun. However, as time went on, ideas began to change and that resulted in…
2) Confucian Confusion
Confucianism was the ruling belief system in Korea during the Joseon Dynasty, which controlled Korea from 1392-1897. That’s a loooonnnnggggg time. Because of this utter domination, Korean culture still holds on to many of the Confucian ideals. The one you see the most of is the Confucian respect of elders, and because of that…
Drinking in Korea with people who are seen as “above” you (elders or workplace superiors) has a LOT of rules (see our previous video on Korean Drinking Etiquette). These rules all date back to Confucianism in the 1300s and are closely tied to Confucian ideas. Scholars used to get together for educational sessions called “Hyanguemjurye” (형음주), where fancy people would get together and learn how to yell at their underlings for pouring them booze with the wrong hand. However…
4) Drinking is how you show your elders respect and how they show you respect
Being invited out to drinks with someone who you view as far above you is one of the biggest compliments a Korean worker can receive. It’s how higher-ups show their inferiors that they actually care about them. You can then show your boss respect by having perfect drinking etiquette for the entire night. If your boss is constantly re-filling your soju cup, it’s a sign that he really likes you, but maybe he likes you too much, because…
5) Drinking loosens the screws
There’s a lot of hierarchy in Korea, especially in the workplace. And that leads to a lot of words that are never said. This can include personal opinions, personal life or complaints against the boss. Without a chance to let loose, things can bottle up and explode quicker than a shaken makgeolli bottle. So Koreans look at drinking as a chance to bond with their peers in a way they can’t in other settings. Drinking is important because it lets you open a whole can of things that can’t and won’t (and sometimes probably shouldn’t) be said!
6) Drinking etiquette often leads to over-consumption
In Korean drinking culture, it’s vital that everyone’s cup always have at least a little alcohol in it. It is impolite to leave your friend’s glass empty. It’s also impolite to refuse a drink because it’s seen as turning down generosity and denying someone who is trying to help you have a good time. This means that if you are emptying your glass quickly, it will become full just as quickly. You may be thinking “this is the greatest magic I have ever heard of!,” but Korea isn’t the “Land of the Morning Calm” for no reason…
7) Koreans have the science of hangover cures down pegged
You can’t swing a cat in Seoul without hitting something that is there specifically to cure your hangover. From hangover soups (해장국 “haejangkook”), to hangover drinks (“medicinal” energy drinks easily bought at convenience stores), to good ole-fashioned sweat-lodges (찜질방 “jjimjilbang”), it’s easy to get the tiger off your back if you need to. Many restaurants that sell hangover cures are open early in the morning to serve salarymen (office workers) poisoned from the night before. (See Korea’s secret to curing hangovers here!). This is largely because…
8) Alcohol Omnipresence
Alcoholic beverages are EVERYWHERE in Korea and they are also CHEAP! You can buy beer, liquor, wine, or Korean specialty alcohols in every convenience store and supermarket (only the ones on university campuses appear to be the exceptions). A bottle of soju packs a respectable 20% alcohol and costs less than $2. You can also drink pretty much anywhere (playgrounds, parks, and sidewalks included; school grounds excluded). It’s an alcoholic paradise!
It is entirely possible to politely refuse drinks. The best way to make sure you don’t offend anyone, however, is to still accept the drink and then just let it hang out next to you. You can pretend to sip it after toasts or just drink it veeerrryyyy slowly throughout the night. Completely refusing alcohol is also acceptable, but people may ask you why you’re not drinking (best to just say “I’m on antibiotics” if you want to avoid a line of questioning).
Drinking is NEVER mandatory and being forced to drink is NEVER acceptable, Korea is no exception. However, a long night drinking with a bunch of Koreans and practicing the culture is definitely an experience we can recommend! ^_^
Ever drink with Koreans? Share your Korean drinking experiences with us in the comments!
Margaret has been living and working in Seoul since 2011. Originally hailing from the United States (Maine and Tennessee, to be precise) she’s more than found a home amongst the wonders of Seoul. She eats more kimbap that could possibly be healthy for her and has a bad habit of bursting into KPop songs to which she does not know even 80% of the lyrics. Check out her blog at margarettriesbeing.com for more in-depth (that is to say, rambling) articles on Seoul How-To’s, Survival Tips, and excessive use of animated gifs.