Table Manners

Category : Korean Cultures / Surviving in Korea
Nov 28, 2014

My mother freaks out when I don’t have a placemat under my plate at all times. The last time I was home in Canada, it was 8:00am and I was munching on some toast sans-placemat. My mother also has a “sixth sense” for moments when table manners are neglected. She immediately came scurrying down the stairs from her bedroom and huffed, “You’re 26 years old! Haven’t you learned anything from me over all these years?” She then whipped a placemat out of the “placemat” drawer and placed it gingerly under my plate. She turned on her heel and scurried back to her bedroom. Under most circumstances I would be annoyed, but on this particular morn I was impressed. I was impressed by her “sixth sense” and more importantly, it always amazes me how much people care about these things, even at 8:00am.


With that being said, after spending three years abroad in Korea, I finally understand that table manners are important. Three years has given me a new found respect for the manners I grew up with (albeit my occasional 8:00am slipups) and also for manners in general, all over the world. Korean culture its own set of table manners, all of which I had to learn, and now all of which I have grown quite accustomed to following. I’ll even go so far as to say that I feel uncomfortable when I see them disregarded. So before you dig into your rice, consider Korean table manners.



  • Wait for the eldest person to start eating first.
  • Pour alcoholic drinks with two hands for others. Back in the old days, people had to scoop up their long hanbok /한복 (Korean traditional dress) sleeves to pour other’s drinks. It is from this necessity that the tradition developed.
  • Hold your glass with two hands while someone pours for you.
  • Place your chopsticks and spoon to the right of your soup dish on a napkin or in a chopstick holder. Place your rice dish to the left of the soup bowl. Other dishes remain in the center for all to share.
  • Reach across the table to get something. It’s considered rude to interrupt someone else eating to have them pass you what you need.
  • Cover your mouth with your hand while using a toothpick.
  • Wish others to eat well before you eat: “jal meog-gaet-seum-nida /잘먹겠습니다”. Think of it as the Korean version of “bon appétit!”.
  • Wait until the eldest person finishes before leaving the table.
  • Accept the first drink of alcohol even if you aren’t a big drinker. It’s extremely impolite to refuse a glass of alcohol from the host. After that you may respectfully decline. Request some other type of beverage like sprite or coke rather than just drinking water.
  • Eat at the same tempo as the others at the table. It is rude to eat very quickly or very slowly. You may find Koreans eat lunch time meals quickly while they draw out special big dinners.



  1. Blow your nose at the table.
  2. Pour your own alcoholic beverage.
  3. Leave your chopsticks sticking up in your rice bowl. It’s a sign of respect for the dead done at burial ceremonies.
  4. Mix rice into the central soup bowl or center meal. Each person has their own rice (or meal) which is not shared.
  5. Use both chopsticks and the spoon at the same time. Try to only use one at a time. Following this rule is considered excellent manners; however people commonly use both- one in each hand.
  6. Hold your rice or soup bowl in your hand while eating.


Know This:

  1. The youngest woman (or man, if there are no women present) serves the oldest male first.
  2. It is common that one person will take the bill.
  3. It’s okay to chew with your mouth open or to talk while chewing. You may find older people do this often, while young people do not.
  4. A meal without rice is like eating jam without bread. The rice is always a meal’s staple food, while the side dishes merely accompany it for flavor.
  5. A traditional Korean meal always consists of rice, kimchi and other side dishes (usually other fermentedvegetables), soup or stew and sometimes meat or fish.
  6. The spoon is reserved for your soup and your rice, while the chopsticks are used for other sides and meat.

Image courtesy of SoCoolKorea via ListVerse.


Tags : Food. Manners. Etiquette.

Lindsey lived and worked in Seoul, South Korea for over 5 years. While there, she dabbled in different areas of work and explored the culture. She spent time teaching elementary students, business English to adults and high school students about college preparation. She also studied Korean, wrote blogs and tasted as many foods as she possibly could including fermented skate fish. Over the years, Lindsey developed a love for Korea and the culture. She is keen to share her knowledge of Korea with others and she will always consider Korea a second home.