No Korean meal is complete without soju flowing like wine. The combination of hospitality, showing respect, and “can’t say no” mentality / “one shot” are what transcend nights out with soju (a low alcoholic content liquor) to drinking experiences that lead some to shiver in fear.
Rules and traditions of drinking soju
The first and most important aspect is that one is never supposed to pour one’s own drink. When one’s soju glass is completely empty, someone will pour you another. As with most forms of interaction, one must show respect for elders and people with higher status. Usually the youngest person will pour the drink but should never pour his own or top up the glass that still has liquor in it. The second most important aspect is that drinking to excess is the norm. Korean culture can be a bit macho at times, and drinking is an expression of that machismo. No sense in embarrassing oneself and saying “no thanks” to a refill of an empty glass, because the glass will be filled up & everyone will surely rib you for it.
Over soju drinks is the only way to conduct business and get to know someone in Korean culture
Koreans believe that liquor consumption makes for more honest discussion and a better appraisal of friends and companions. In business dealings, drinking establishes an informality that is alien to Western practices. In Korea, a business meeting may include dinner and karaoke over lots of drinks, without any mention of the deal/transaction. For Koreans, it is crucial to form a strong personal relationship prior to a professional one and this often comes at the expense of many soju hangovers. If a Korean person invites you to share a soju with them, it is a sign they want to get to know you better. Refusal can be interpreted as a sign of disrespect, so don’t go around pissing people off by turning out their soju meetup offers. There are many other traditional elements to the soju drinking experience – such as how one should pour, hold the glass when its being poured, covering the label of the bottle with one’s hand while pouring, etc – but there’s plenty of awesome videos on YouTube that go into further details of proper Korean drinking etiquette.
As a couple of friends have duly noted:
Initial comment: “If you didn’t wake up in your bed with all your clothes on and on top of your bed, then it wasn’t a real soju experience”
Response: “Clearly you are a connoisseur and aware of soju’s mystical ability to bend time and space.”
Allow and encourage the soju to openly flow as when in Rome. That little bundle of trouble. There is nothing more edifying than drinking it up for cultural educational purposes! Enjoy.