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[Survive & Thrive] Table manners and public bathrooms in S. Korea

By Yoon Min-sik

Published : July 11, 2023 - 16:09

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No matter what country you visit, restaurants and public bathrooms are probably among the places you visit the most.

Here are some tips on things one might find handy when dining with South Koreans, or going to a bathroom here.

Dining manners in Korea

Conventional table manners suggest that one should make as little noise as possible and keep one’s mouth shut when eating. Over the years, however, a trend of making noise while eating has spread among young Koreans, influenced by “mukbang” -- or “eating shows” -- that have been popularized by TV and YouTube personalities.

A visitor to South Korea may be thrown off by how people eat “jjigae,” a stew-like dish, as it is still common for multiple people to eat it out of a large bowl that they share. Sharing food is something many Koreans like to do, and putting food on other people’s plate out of kindness is a frequent occurrence.

One should also note that Korea is a nation that greatly values respect toward one’s elders. When dining together, it is considered rude when a younger person starts eating before older people at the table.

Often, spoons and chopsticks are stored in a container, and guests are expected to retrieve them for use. In such situations, it is highly recommended that you not only take out your own utensils but also those for the rest of the group, especially when dining with someone older, in a higher position, or when sitting closest to the utensil container. Similarly, when it comes to serving water, it is customary to pour water not only for yourself but for the entire group. This gesture demonstrates respect and consideration for others.

Not-so-public bathrooms

Oral hygiene is important for everyone, but Koreans take this matter even more seriously, as it is customary for them to brush their teeth in public bathrooms. In public bathrooms inside office buildings after meal times, you are likely to find at least a few Korean employees brushing their teeth.

One of the more unusual features of local public bathrooms is that some of them have a bar of soap for everyone to share, instead of a liquid soap dispenser. This is increasingly becoming a thing of the past, however, as many bathrooms now feature liquid soap dispensers.

When using a bathroom that looks rundown, one may want to look inside the stalls to check if there is toilet paper. Most public bathrooms have rolls of toilet paper inside each stall, but some of the older ones have them outside the stalls -- or sometimes not at all.