Conversations With Koreans: Have You Eaten?
When learning Korean, one of the first of many verbs to be learned is muk-da (먹다), or “to eat”. Considering people eat constantly throughout the day every day, of course this is a good verb to use and once you learn it, you’ll hear it spoken everywhere! However, it may not be used the way you think it’s used.
Recently in a conversation with four Korean women, the topic of etiquette and manners came up. We were discussing differences from the west compared to Korea. I brought up how endearing, although strange at first, it was that Koreans consistently ask if I’ve eaten and if I respond that I haven’t, inevitably food shows up. From co-workers to friends and acquaintances to bosses and so on, over the years this has happened numerous times. I just couldn’t get over how nice Koreans were to care so much about my daily eating habits. In the States, a mother may ask a child coming home from school if they’re hungry or a friend will ask a friend if they’ve eaten because they want to eat so they’re hoping the answer is no, but it’s never the greeting question. In Korea however, it is.
“Hello, have you eaten?” “Hello, did you eat breakfast?” “Hi, did you eat dinner?”
(This post contains affiliate links, which means I receive a certain percentage of a sale if you purchase after clicking. These funds go to maintain the site… and if there’s any left over, to a bottle of red wine to go with dinner. ^^)
The women then began to discuss how they saw this as a habit and not manners because they do it without thinking. It’s more similar to, “how are you?” and the response, “I’m fine” even if you’re not really fine, they explained.
Honestly, I did learn long ago to just acquiesce and respond with, “yes” because it was a lot easier than getting into a whole conversation about why I hadn’t eaten something before I came to work, so in a sense I had figured out that just saying, “yes” aka “I’m fine” was the common rule. Sometimes, if I was hungry and a coworker, friend or other would ask though, I’d still say, “no” and see what food would come my way. I’d sometimes still reply with the negative because it was true and still for some reason the question of whether I’ve eaten or not is just so strange at times, like when I’ve just come in for an interview. Why would a possible future manager care if I’ve eaten after all and aren’t there more pertinent questions to ask? When the ladies were talking though, I remembered back to all of the confused and surprised faces that I had come across when I replied with “no”. My Korean conversation partners were obviously expecting me to say, “yes, I’ve eaten” and move on but I threw them a curve ball and said, “no”. It was like replying with, “Oh, I’m terrible. I just failed a test and then got side swiped by a car in the parking lot and now I’m late for this meeting…” and so on and so on to an acquaintance who was just being polite in asking as you sat in a lobby together.
Are Koreans really asking if you’ve eaten?
Probably not. When you meet a boss, teacher, acquaintance, friend or any number of people, they will probably ask this out of habit and nothing else and the expected response is for you to say, “yes”. However, my husband says that around meal time, your friends might actually be asking if you’ve eaten and then it’s just up to you to figure out the appropriate response. But if you say, “no” and you’re not hungry then say that you’re fine afterward so there isn’t an awkward shuffle to find you food in the aftermath.
Where did this “habit” as the women said, or custom, come from?
After the war in the 60s and 70s, food was difficult to come by in Korea and so to ask how someone was was to ask if they’d eaten. While food is much more abundant these days, the question has maintained relevance as a way to ask after someones well-being.
How to say it?
밥 먹었어요? (Bap meogeoseoyo?) This is the basic way to say “did you eat?” and if you’re just swell, the appropriate response would be 네 먹었어요. (Nae meogeoseoyo.) or “yes, I ate.”
For a higher and more polite tone, you may say 식사하셨어요? (Shiksa hashutsuyo?) or “have you eaten?” and then the appropriate response would be 네 했어요. (Nae haeseoyo.) or “yes, I’ve eaten.
Other “to eat” related phrases include:
잘 먹겠습니다 (jal meokgesseumnida): “I will eat well”. This phrase is used at the beginning of a meal and is directed to the person that prepared the food or if you’re in a restaurant, it’s more or less directed at the group at whole to say, “let’s enjoy the meal” while also saying “I’ll eat well and enjoy it,” to the person that will be paying.
잘 먹었습니다 (jal meogeosseumnida): This literally means, “I ate well.” This is commonly said at the end of a meal instead of “thank you” to the person that is buying lunch/dinner. You’re indirectly saying thank you and that the meal was delicious.