Drinking is a big part of adult life in Korea, and comes with some very interesting rules, games, tricks, and tips to surviving the Korean adult world.
Korean drinking culture really takes off in university where many clubs, groups, and majors will have special events centered around drinking with your peers. Then it continues into working life with bosses/managers and other higher ups pressuring teams to drink a lot or go for multiple rounds.
Also to note: if you’re a foreigner (aka- anybody that doesn’t look native Korean) Koreans will give you some leniency for all these rules and standards towards their drinking culture. Many people won’t expect you to know much of it at all. It’s more towards knowing or getting a full Korean experience – or you can use this all for some bonus points with people haha. So don’t stress too much if it’s out of your depth or you start to slip up on the rules as you drink more.
Legal Drinking Age in Korea
The legal drinking age in South Korea is 19 (and that’s international age not Korean age btw, which is something I can get into later).
Why do Koreans Turn Away When Drinking?
Really the reason you see so many Koreans turn away is the all focused around their strong hierarchy. Same with the Korean language Koreans respect culture is integrated and tied into the Korean drinking culture too. When drinking with someone your senior there are specific rules about how to best drink with them.
Drinking: As a sign of respect when drinking with an elder or someone in a senior position Koreans turn their heads away and cover their mouth with their free hand.
Pouring: When pouring a drink for an elder you need to pour with two hands holding the bottle or by using 1 hand to pour and the other to support your pouring arms elbow. People wait until a glass is fully empty to refill it again.
Receiving a Drink: Similar to pouring a drink when you receive one from an elder you hold your cup with both hands.
With someone the same age or younger you don’t personally have to worry about hold a bottle/cup with 1 or 2 hands, though using both can show a sign of respect to them.
Quick Guidelines for Korean Drinking Culture
Past the innate hierarchy culture added in Korean drinking here are some quick tips to your night out.
- Accept the first glass you’re offered
The first drinks set the tone for the night! It’s encouraged even if you’re just going to sip your second drink (or pretend to) to down the first shot in one go. Soju shots are typically how a lot of drinking events start off.
- Don’t pour your own drink
It’s seen as improper to pour for yourself; another person must pour a drink for you in a group setting.
- Respect your elders and/or the hierarchy
Try not to forget about the rules above when drinking, pouring, or receiving a drink with seniors!
- Finish your shot
Koreans really push for 원샷 or 한잔, which means to take a shot and drink it all in one go. Don’t take this as final though, as the night is winding down and you’re nearing your limit its much better to slowly sip a drink than overdo yourself! Always be careful of your limits, and leave a drink half full so others wont refill it.
- 안주 (drinking snacks) is integral
Most of the time whether a company outing, university event or just out with friends there will be snacks at hand with the drinks. Everyone has their own preferences of course but many 안주 will be fried, greasy, and salty snacks.
Does Korea have a BIG Drinking Culture?
Yes, a part of Korean adult/young adult culture has a focus around drink from university to work as I mentioned before. I found that Wikipedia even cites that according to 2013’s official Korean statistics Koreans drink more alcohol than eat rice… wild right?
Work: Drinking culture is BIG for offices (though now its changing which I’ll get into down below), many offices use drinking gatherings or 회식 as a team building event. So any type of celebration; change in the company, new team member, or even just Friday night can set it off!
Depending on the company these events can go long though, going for multiple rounds; first dinner, then drinks, then late 노래방 (lit. song room, karaoke) into the night.
University: Similarly for work, universities use drinking event as a bonding experience. You can find them happening in clubs, majors, and with peers. The biggest is within majors, there will be big drinking events with your peers in your major and certain seniors leading the events.
The pressure from these events can be high on people because so much of the university social culture is centered around drinking. So if you want to make friends and get integrated in your major class it can feel necessary a lot of the time to go out.
Personal Relationships: Of course there will be an aspect of Korean drink culture with friends or family as well. But that’s more dependent on the people and what your dynamic is. Maybe with an older friend you have to play into all the hierarchy but another is more casual and you can all drink comfortably. Similarly with a family as well.
Korean Work Drinking Culture is Changing Though!
More of the younger generation entering the workforce are trying to not give in to Korea’s big drinking culture. Traditionally the after work so called ‘drinking and bonding’ event of 회식 can take up a whole evening and night; with second and third round encouraged and pressured by the seniors at their company going from bars to the 노래방.
And so reasonably a bunch of new workers question 회식 culture, and with covid-19s recent impact to work culture worldwide it gave a lot people the reason and lessoned pressure they needed to not go. According to a survey conducted by Embrain Trend Monitor (엠브레인 트렌드모니터) 50.8% of people were satisfied that the number of these gatherings has decreased.
Koreans drinking culture can be intense so the ultimate advice is not to give in peer pressure too much. As an adult a key thing is knowing your limits and what you are comfortable with. Even if people encourage you to drink a lot or go out for multiple rounds do what is best for you.
Here’s some general tips to lasting a night out comfortably:
- take your drinks slowly
- leave your drink halfway full so others wont refill them too quick
- even fake a couple sips sometimes; most people won’t notice
- have some water along with the alcohol as it dehydrates you (thus giving a hangover the next day)
- eat the snacks to help absorb the alcohol and keep your mouth full
- when you arrive home after a night maybe have some more water; better safe than in pain when you wakeup!
This is already running long, so in another post I’ll get into some of the drinking games people play. There are a lot of options so watch out for that!