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!
Here’s a video about Korean office drinking culture.
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!
I lived in Korea for 7months and I love Korea, the alcohol culture is the best, can you write a post of the alcohol games ? The “Dalgi” one I always lose hahahahaha.
Excellent idea! We’ll definitely get on this!
It struck me fairly quickly that, once I started watching a lot of Korean films and K-dramas – contemporary – Koreans were depicted as doing A LOT of drinking. At it was difficult to find a film or drama where someone wasn’t hauling someone else home piggyback.
At the time, I wondered if the alcohol theme was just an automatic part of filmed stories, like the love interest. Whatever real life was, this was the filmed depiction.
However, bit by bit, I picked up that this really did depict real life with some degree of accuracy. When I read that Yoon Eun Hye was known for some particular behavior when she was drunk, and this not too long after I read of her devout religious life, I knew that I was seeing something of how it was in reality.
The article, with other posts on this site brings a lot of this together. It also raises questions with me about other aspects of social reality in Korea. I spent a number of years when I still lived in So. California working in the area of alcohol diversion – for minors – and drunk driving – for adults who got caught and am familiar with the social ramifications of large scale alcohol use. I would be curious to see something of the effects of such alcohol use in Korea.
Due to the prevalence of over-consumption in Korea a lot of “safe-guards” have been put in place. It’s not uncommon to see road blocks set up on weekend nights where people need to take breathalizer tests. There is also a large industry here for cabs, hired drivers (they’ll drive you and your car home), cheap hotels, and other “don’t drive drunk” safety nets.
Good post. There’s another – albeit slightly risky – way that a native Korean once told me he uses to deal with his co-worker or boss’ overzealous outpouring of generosity. Accept when they fill your glass and then, when you’re sure no one’s looking, spill some into your empty rice bowl. It’s an old practice to pour some water into an empty rice bowl anyway so no one will notice or question it. If you’re outside, you can also subtly spill some under the table. 🙂
Very good pointers! Just gotta make sure to be slick about it! 😉
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Some time ago I heard that Koreans are quite heavy drinkers and now recently I found out that they can mostly just drink like 2 – 3 bottles of soju (<25% alcohol), which I don't think is that big of a deal.
Well, I guess it's because I'm European but still Koreans beat Americans in drinking by FAR.
It's hilarious how Americans drink a couple of beers at parties and think they "party hard"…
What most don’t consider is that these guys need to go home to their wives eventually. My husband is Korean and honestly the drinking culture is horrible. He will come home and vomit on the floor in the living room or in bed on the covers. Korean drinking culture is fun until you are the one cleaning up the mess. I don’t see how this is tolerated by Korean wives. Being from America, I just can’t grasp the social implication to go drinking with your boss. Nothing has changed even though we have a baby. He still goes drinking with his boss 2~3 times per week and I have to just accept that this is his culture….it’s awful. Don’t marry a Korean man and live here if you ever want to sleep at night again.
I’m sorry you’re experiencing that. I just wanted to let you know that it does get better. It’s usually the first few years that are the hardest. And you’re right. Being a wife in Korea requires a lot of patience.
I am sorry may i ask when did you write this article? because i have an asssignment and i want to make your article as my references. i have to clearly put all the information and credits though. Thank You. Hope you reply asap??
I am student who majored in Korean Languange Department in Gadjah Mada University. Indonesia. i am looking forward to read all articles in Seoulistic eventough i am still in my second year and never been to Korea before hopefully this website breaks all my less-information knowledge^^. Keep it up.
When I visited Korea my experiences of the drinking culture were mostly positive. Koreans are above all Social drinkers and the most important thing to them is that their guests are having a good time so by using the “drink slowly” trick one can have a fun night out in Korean company without needing the hangover cures in morning.
How about the health aspect of over drinking. It the past it was also acceptable to socially to smoke cigarettes, but as time change and medical research revealed harmful effects of cigarettes social views changed, with more non-smoking environments. How does Korean culture deal with the growing facts of harmful alcoholism does to human organs as modern studies revealed. Should culture be put first before healthy living?? (im an Australian citizen, and we love our beer culture here, but even our nation acknowledge the health implications, with advertisements and strict drinking laws)
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A culture that turns to drinking for fun is losing something very important. When people drink, their inhibitions are let down and things are said and done that while sober would not be appropriate. 20% alcohol is a lot in a drink and for young people especially, drinking excessively will destroy their liver and do other harmful things to their bodies starting at a young age. It is disgusting to see anyone drunk, acting foolish and out of control. My father was killed by a drunk driver when I was three years old and it made our lives very difficult. Alcohol is very addictive and has ruined many lives in this world. Why would an entire culture go down this path? It is shameful and tragic!
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I found this article very interesting as I hosted an exchange Korean student for 2 1/2 years. When he returned to me as an adult he had all this drinking culture. I wondered how he could afford it and then I was educated to the low price of alcohol on S. Korea. It’s funny, he spends several hours in the gym for visual improvement and then hours in the evening drinking . Of course he puts Sprite in his Merlot so I think he has some growing to do. Thanks for the informative article. I was well put together.