Why do Koreans turn their faces away when drinking in front of elderly ?
During a night of drinking with my boss and his colleagues, some of my elders (I'm 31, they're 40-45) told me that i don't have to turn my head away when drinking because i'm in the company of friends. does this mean that next time i go out with them i don't need to do that? i'm confused about this custom and how it works.
If you have had any contact with Korean culture, the Korean hardly needs to remind you that Korea has, among other things, a strong drinking culture. And visitors also find that with the strong drinking culture comes a set of rituals about drinking.
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Here are the basic rules of Korean drinking.
Rule 1 - Drink, but don't be a hero
At a place to drink, you are supposed to drink. You can refuse to drink by giving excuses like being sick, etc. (Roboseyo has a good list of clever ways to avoid drinking.) But preferably, you will drink. This, however, does not mean you have to be the best drinker of the crowd. Unless you like drinking that much and can handle it physically, there is no honor in being the best drinker. Don't be a hero -- pace yourself. Sip instead of knocking back. Or do what the Korean does -- don't drink at all, until the occasion calls for it. During the course of the night, there inevitably will be times where you will have to drink the contents of your glass, like when someone attempts to fill your glass (discussed below). Drink then.
For the uninitiated, Korean-style drinking can get out of hand really fast unless you remember this rule -- don't be a hero. Other people might encourage you to drink at first, but they will stop caring as the night goes on and they themselves get more drunk. If you have a particularly bad instigator in your party, get the instigator drunk first so that he won't notice that you are pacing yourself.
Rule 2 - No one pours him/herself
The implications of this rule are simple. Never pour yourself, and never let anyone's glass go empty. Going back to Rule 1, one of the surest way of pacing yourself is -- not drinking at all, until someone attempts to pour your glass. The Korean likes to drink exactly half of his soju glass, and simply sit on it until someone attempts to pour his glass. As noted in Roboseyo's post, being proactive about pouring others usually helps you pace yourself.
Rule 3 - The elder rules
There are just a few rules to remember about drinking with older people. When pouring, use two hands to pour. When receiving liquor, also hold your glass with two hands. When actually drinking the alcohol in front of an older person, turn your face away such that you don't show your neck going back. These are just polite things to do.
Rule 4 - Forget all the rules
Often, visitors to Korea get paralyzed by all these supposed rules, because they somehow have this vision of Korea where all the rules must be followed with mechanical precision, or they will be stoned to death in the streets. Relax! Always remember the Foreigner Rule -- Koreans do not expect foreigners to follow Korean custom. If you do not want to keep all these things in mind, don't.
Even forgetting the Foreigner Rule, remember that all the rules described above are dynamic and change depending on the circumstance -- particularly when the night is old and everyone is drunk. Similar to what Ryan described above, Koreans will let some of the rules go if they do not feel like following them. Go with the flow, and enjoy the night.
Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at firstname.lastname@example.org.