Pouring a Drink in South Korea

The informant is a 51-year-old international businessman who has frequently traveled across Europe and Asia to meet with clients for the past 20 years.

Over a relaxed nine holes of golf, I asked the informant if there were any dining customs or etiquette that have stood out to him throughout his travels. He mentioned that after having been to South Korea many times, he has learned that you must pour a drink in an extremely particular way when out to lunch or dinner.

“When you’re pouring someone’s drink in South Korea, you have to hold your forearm tightly. So if your right hand is being used to pour the drink, you place your left hand on the underside of your right forearm and wrap your fingers around it. It’s just polite. I guess that it comes from the old days when extremely wide-cuffed sleeves were the custom.”

While contemporary fashion trends and the accepted style of dress in South Korea may not encompass wearing sleeves that are so wide-cuffed they have the potential to droop into food and drink, this form of dining etiquette provides a glimpse into the types of formalities that arose as a result of the traditional style of South Korean dress. I asked the informant what a South Korean would do if you failed to hold your forearm when pouring a drink, and he replied, “Probably nothing. It’s kind of like chewing with your mouth open. Nobody will say it but everyone is thinking you’re rude.” Hearing of this subtle dining tradition that I would have otherwise never thought to perform leads me to wonder how often I and other Americans give ourselves away as foreigners when eating in other countries. Assuming that this is a practice unique to South Korea, knowing to engage in this tradition provides South Koreans a silent act of solidarity with one another. If an individual from South Korea is out at a restaurant anywhere across the world and sees another holding their forearm when pouring a drink, they will know that they share a common nationality, or at least that both are knowledgeable and respectful of what they see as proper dining etiquette.