If you’re married to someone with a Korean family, you’ve probably realized by now that you didn’t just make a commitment to your significant other … you married into a way of life. But notwithstanding all the K-dramas you’ve binge watched, do you still feel sorely out of place and awkward when trying to navigate those daily norms? If so, you’re not alone! Read on for five tricks to put you well on your way to impressing your Korean in-laws (or any Korean adult you need to woo)!
1. Follow their cues at the table.
Food is to Koreans like the sun is to flowers – life revolves around it. So adopting proper table manners is essential to showing your in-laws that you understand and respect what’s important to them. Start by watching your timing. Make sure they’ve been served before you dish up your own plate. Then, wait for them to take a first bite before you start eating. A simple but effective way of showing deference.
2. Eat up!
As a corollary to the first point, references to eating or food are central to many quotidian Korean expressions. When you’re a guest over for a meal at your in-laws’ home, show off your cultural knowledge by telling them, “Thank you, I will eat well!” (jahlmuggehseubnida) before you start chowing down. Then, literally… chow down. Few things will impress your in-laws – particularly the older generations – more than seeing you eat heartily and ask for seconds or thirds. In other words, don’t be afraid to unleash your inner glutton.
3. Don’t pick a fight … unless it’s over the check.
If you’re eating out with your in-laws, always insist on paying. You shouldn’t underestimate how stealthy Koreans can be in this regard, so be prepared. Use your peripheral vision and snatch that check before it reaches the table. If your in-laws beat you to it (which may very well happen), keep trying! Make an effort to take the check away from them, insist, and argue. Be loud. Be theatrical. And IF you cave, make sure you up your game next time and cover the subsequent meal. (Pro tip: savvy diners have even been known to pretend to go to the restroom on a stealth mission to pay the check before it even gets to the table.)
4. Acknowledge their presence.
All people want to be seen, but Korean elders expect it. So say hello when your elder in-laws enter the room, acknowledge when they leave, and (if you want to score extra points) stand up and bow as you do it.
5. Learn the art of nunchi (reading the room).
Reading the room isn’t just a skill for Koreans, it’s second nature. Thanks in part to its traditionally communitarian values, Koreans are accustomed to identifying and managing others’ unspoken sentiments. Because of this, your in-laws might not always directly express how they feel. Instead, they rely on your ability to correctly gauge their mood, the moment, and what they need. Hence, the importance of nunchi. Next time you see your in-laws – listen more than you talk, observe their body language, take careful note of what they don’t say, and react to their silent cues. Once you master this skill, you’ll be able to maneuver 90% of your interactions with your in-laws with ease, even if you don’t speak Korean. And if you’re ever told that your nunchi is “quick,” you’ll know that you made it.
Ji Hae Kim is an attorney who lives and works in the Twin Cities. She spends much of her free time chasing after her three little boys who, like their mother, have a hard time sitting still.