Seoul / South Korea: Days 15-18 (entry 2) – A cigarette associated spitting culture bounded by unofficial rules but little shame

On day two of field work in Seoul Eunice and I visited the Hye Hwa area which is an arty/cultural area with lots of small theatres; Dongsung High school – a specialised Catholic high school populated by ‘middle/upper class’ students; Hanyang Technical School populated essentially by ‘working class’ students, and the Dongdaemoon Market area which combines a large area of poor, relatively run down retail shop fronts and and stalls frequented by poorer South Koreans, next door to a large shopping mall frequented by wealthier citizens.

At the schools, one at break-time and one at end of day leaving time we saw only a little spitting (none of which was smoking related). Eunice’s cousin however, a school teacher, reported that in one outdoor alley/corridor at her (High) school there was so much spitting that you literally had to navigate around the spittle on the floor. At the schools we observed, in one instance a spit only occurred once a teacher that had been present had gone and at the other a few boys spat outside the school gates but not too many. We visited Hye Hwa in mid-afternoon and the streets were not busy. We saw one or two male smokers/spitters as we might have expected (although spitting is not exclusively related to smoking – just mostly). These were hocks and spits. At the outdoor market area we saw a lot of spitting but much of it was into the available tin ashtrays/cans attached to the metal fences all-round the area and if not available – onto the ground.

The half-spit – confirmed and (perhaps) understood

First encountered in Tokyo, Eunice and I regularly came across the half-spit which Eunice declared to be, in her opinion, a common act (and one since also seen/heard with regularity in Shanghai / China too). At first we could not quite fathom the purpose of the half-spit, the noisy hocking of phlegm into the mouth, in readiness normally for a spit, only for that spit never to come (and to be followed we have to presume by a swallow). The answer (perhaps) however lays more in cross-cultural difference than in something we might label as a distinct phenomenon. An epiphany came to me a few days later however after some spicy food in Shanghai whereby I found myself a little congested. I made the normal throat-clearing act that many westerners do in this situation (mouth either closed or slightly open) whereby we do a kind of throat clearing ‘cough’. I suspect that the half-spit may well be the same act but performed with a different style. Not everyone in Seoul or Shanghai are spitters and perhaps this is how those individuals clear their throats before swallowing. The difference is in style not substance perhaps?

There are a whole host of cross cultural differences that will be related in a later post – particularly that related to personal space.

Seoul /South Korea – smoking and spitting, rules and regulations

As inferred perhaps by the post title, there appears to be little shame around public spitting Seoul. There are no anti-spitting campaigns that we are aware of and in this sense spitting is not high on the public consciousness. Eunice became a seasoned spit observer/hearer in the two days we spent in the field (she is probably scarred for life in this respect as most people hearing about my research remark that they now cannot help but notice it more) but at first she saw and heard far less than I did. Spitting is in many sense then not on the public agenda and is not a problem it seems. Smoking however is different. Campaigns to reduce and control smoking behaviour are prominent – spitting goes ‘with’ smoking and yet even with this clear association spitting hasn’t been (to date) dragged into the discursive framework that seeks to control smoking behaviours.

Risk factors leading to more or less spitting

There are a whole host of factors emerging from each of the countries that suggest spitting is more or less curtailed by certain conditions – Seoul is no different. When observing the smoking zone inside the grounds of the Samsung Headquarters Eunice remarked (not dissimilar to some actions in India) that ‘respect’ will mean that when smoking and/or conversing in the presence of a company employee who is either higher or lower in the company hierarchy then spitting would be unlikely. Spitting will also be somewhat curtailed for many men in front of women and especially wives and girlfriends. Spitting may also be being constrained (or was previously when enforced more) by the construction of smoking only zones creating less opportunities for smoking. Observations of smoking zones on day 3 also seemed to indicate that mobile phones play a part in reducing spitting. Observations of people smoking and talking on a mobile phone tended to reveal far less spitting (at all, or frequency) than those focussed solely on getting through that cigarette!

Socially responsible and (dis)inhibited spitting

A great deal of spitting (though not all) is of the quitter, muted half spit/half dribble kind. Often into smoking cans or bushes or drains. As stated above ‘who’ is around will affect whether spitting might take place and some government controls may be via an unintended consequence of controlling smoking also be controlling some spitting. Spitting is not, in many cases done without some consideration. Spitting is thus not free of inhibition or controls, it just isn’t, perhaps, really ‘there’ much beyond these unconscious/informal and unintended controls.

Future research

Eunice and I have drawn up a plan for further research and writing not-too-dissimilar to that drawn up for Tokyo / Japan with Madoka. This will involve more historical background data collection from Korean language sources, the translation of the survey into Korean and further observations and/or follow-up online interviews where needed.


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