Bottom’s Up: Navigating South Korea’s Drinking Culture

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Alcohol is an essential part of Korean culture, with South Koreans having one to three drinks a week. It ties with the country’s tradition of hoesik or eating together as a way of signifying unity in a group. Dining usually comes with drinking – check the menu of any Korean fried chicken restaurant or barbecue place, and you’ll most likely find alcohol bundled with their meals.

In Korea, it’s common for colleagues to go out drinking regularly. Executives and managers use it to show they care for their people, while employees drink regularly to get to know their colleagues and to relieve stress.

Experiencing the country’s drinking culture involves navigating the etiquette rooted in traditional beliefs. If you were asked by a boss, colleague or friend for drinks, here’s how you can get through the night:

1 | Know the hierarchy

Even if the get-together is meant for de-stressing and getting to know each other, hierarchy still matters on a night out. Koreans always defer to the “higher” person in the relationship, usually determined by age and status.

No one drinks until the senior finishes pouring for everyone. And, when everyone finally drinks, juniors turn their bodies away from the senior figures.

2 | Pouring and receiving drinks

If you’re pouring the drink, hold the glass with one hand while the other hand supports the arm holding the bottle. When you’re receiving the drink, use one hand to support the bottom of the glass while the palm of the other hand keeps it in place.

If your glass is empty, wait for others to pour for you. Koreans consider it rude when you pour your own glass of alcohol.

3 | Declining drinks

Koreans find it impolite when you refuse a drink unless you have a medical reason. Even if you politely refuse, they’ll see you as rude and a mood killer.

If you have no plans of drinking the night away, drink slowly. Accept the first glass and don’t let it empty right away.

people eating and drinking

4 | Use a Black Knight or Black Rose

A Black Knight or Black Rose – a person (typically a male) who takes a drink for someone else (typically a female) – is your last resort when you don’t want to overdo your drinking. They’re considered your rescuers, as they’ll drink the glass for you.

However, their favour comes with a price. In exchange for drinking your glass, they’ll ask you to do something for them – maybe a song and dance number in front of everyone.

5 | Find a hangover cure

Even if you’ve had only a few drinks, it’s best to find a cure for a pending hangover. Luckily, Korea has a variety of remedies for hangovers – from a soup literally named “hangover soup” to hangover drinks and ice cream. They’re available in a lot of restaurants and convenience stores.

Drinking is an indispensable part of Korean culture, and it may be daunting when a Korean boss, colleague or acquaintance invites you for a night on the town. You can choose to decline the invitation, but if you want to experience the country’s drinking culture, make sure you brush up on etiquette that will earn you thumbs-up during the night. And, always remember to drink in moderation.

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