Seoul / South Korea: Days 15-18 – A cigarette associated spitting culture bounded by unofficial rules but little shame

As my previous but one post, ‘Just a taster’ revealed, there is some serious spitting in Seoul / South Korea but this is spitting unlike that seen in India or other parts of my travels (although Japan could well turn out to be a ‘mini’ SK in the end) to date – which now includes Shanghai.

For the most part – although casual spitting was regularly seen as well – spitting in Seoul was extensive, accompanied by smoking, undertaken in ‘groups’ and it was almost exclusively male. It has very specific characteristics however that need explaining.

Field-work was conducted with a guide over two days (Eunice Sung, a postgraduate student in music sociology looking to do a PhD in the same area) and then by myself for one day. The first two days focussed on familiarity with Seoul and being exposed to/observing a range of different types of area: business district; student/’indie’/bohemian district; a couple of schools; poor market and upmarket shopping areas; an area for war veterans and so on. The third day focussed on confirming / disconfirming notions and seeking a little more depth of observation.

On day 1 – We started in Gangnam , the showpiece area of the city, where Eunice explained to me about the smoking ban/controls and that in Gangnam fines are twice that of elsewhere. There are designated smoking areas around the city centre and in Gangnam these are spread out here and there outside the hundreds of contiguous office blocks including the impressive Samsung HQ. By and large these smoking zones are well populated at most times of the day with numerous people standing in them, leaving them and joining them, almost continuously – see video.

Because we initially focussed on the zones this was where we saw the most smoking in Gangnam but on my way to meet Eunice on Day 2, and on Day three, although I could see that these zones are used extensively it was also the case that numerous other unofficial zones were constantly being created/used all over Gangnam – the law essentially being widely flouted.

South Koreans (or at least those in Seoul) have a much greater tendency to ‘stop off’ for a smoke. This was observed wherever we went. Some do walk around smoking but this is by far a minority action. The smoking zones in this sense are merely an attempt to reduce the number of stopping off points around the area and contain it.

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Smoking and spitting

When we observed these zones (by plonking ourselves in the middle of them and chatting/observing) we also observed extensive spitting. Not by everyone and not all of the time but a consistent amount of spitting took place. In a crowded area this would probably amount to something like a spit by one or other of the smokers every few seconds whereas in an area populated by just say 5 or 6 people it might only be every minute or so. Simply put some spat a lot, others didn’t spit and others just seemed to spit at the end of the ritual. The spits most commonly observed were a fairly quietly ‘pushed’ spit (a kind of dribble that is helped on its way – see previous ‘taster’ post video) spit into one of the ubiquitous cigarette ashtray/tins, available waste bins or into hedges or anything else. Sometimes it was straight to the floor but mostly not (again see my ‘taster’ video where smoker clearly makes the effort on each of the 6 spits to go to the ashtray/tins). Hocks and a spit were not uncommon but in comparison to the quieter more contained (both in terms of noise and ‘purpose’ of spit) spitting mostly observed they were in the minority.

In South Korea around 50% of adult males smoke (by comparison in the UK rates for both men and women are now around 20%) and only around 4% of women. Smoking and spitting for many of them simply ‘go together’ it is deemed natural that smoking makes you want/need to spit. With this many smokers standing and walking around it is fair to say that there was a great deal of spitting observed.

On day 3 I was observing in a bar, where smoking is still allowed, full of suited business men after work. It was very busy but now and then a group of men would get up and go outside for a smoke. This was interpreted by me as a both a need to spit but also the need to smoke in a more familiar ritually comfortable manner. We will follow this up.


The style of smoking is also worth a comment. Many of those observed, not just people taking a break from the office, but those that ‘stop-off’ for a cigarette on-route home etc. mostly appeared to smoke in a determined, no-nonsense way: light-up/draw-exhale, draw-exhale, spit, draw-exhale, draw-exhale, spit, draw-exhale and stub and move on. So they stop for a cigarette – often where others have also decided to stop (it has a strong element of the social attached to it even when no discussion takes place and the others are strangers to them other than in the companionship of the ritual).


Beyond Gangnam

Spreading out into other parts of the city Eunice and I travelled by the metro to the Sillim district, with two universities nearby, shops and a younger ‘scene’; from there we travelled on to the ‘old district’ nearby the Yeong Peung Po train station before moving onto Jong Ro and Gwang Hwa Moon Square – a second business area with newspaper offices and City Hall. These were nearby to TapGol Park and its surrounds which were populated by (Korean War) veterans and other older people who ‘hang out’ there daily. We then moved onto another fashionable/artistic area that houses the Hongik University famous for its specialism in art and design.

In each of these areas we saw more or less spitting, mostly determined by the amount of people around, as was the frequency (Kenneth?) but with most of these areas being outside the controlled smoking zones of the city centre pockets of smokers were more dispersed and ‘groups’ of two and three (separate or together) people were common. Spitting into the street was witnessed as well as into the ‘ashtrays’ where available. We did not see any women spitting.

Anti-spitting campaigns

Now, whilst there are numerous no smoking signs, there are no ‘No Spitting’ signs and as far as we can tell at this point Seoul / South Korea does not have anything significant (if anything at all) by way of anti-spitting campaigns. This is despite being a significant ‘spitting nation’. This may be related to numerous factors which I will muse over further in a later post but it seems that in many respects spitting per se is relatively ‘hidden’ in Seoul / South Korea. Whilst this appears to be typified (once again) by the ‘hidden’ public spitting into swimming pool edges/moats in the case of South Korea even street spitting appears integrated and thus unnoticed – in the sense that it isn’t a problem. Further to this it may indicate that South Koreans spend less time than some other nations ‘looking out’ and/or being concerned how their behaviours and manners are perceived by those beyond their borders?


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