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[Feature] Why do people spit on streets in Korea?

Spitting in public, an ambiguous line between anti-social behavior and culture

In his first visit to Korea, Jason Yin said he had an unpleasant experience witnessing Koreans spitting on pavements multiple times during his two-week stay here.

“Without showing any signs of guilt or shame, Koreans would just spit in public,” the 35-year-old Canadian told The Korea Herald. “Nobody seemed to be bothered by it, though. I saw it happen so often, so naturally.”

Kwaku Ananse, a Ghana national, had similar complaints.

“Korea must find a way of managing public spitting. Very rampant and bad, I saw a man spit on an escalator after coming out from the subway,” he wrote on a Facebook community page of expats, finding many identifying with his experience. 

Spit marks and cigarette butts stain a street in Seoul. (Jo He-rim/The Korea Herald)
Spit marks and cigarette butts stain a street in Seoul. (Jo He-rim/The Korea Herald)

However commonly seen, the image of a person spitting on the pavement is equally nauseating for Koreans.

“When I walk on the streets, I cannot stand it when someone in front of me suddenly spits on the ground, the ground that I, following behind, will be walking on. I think these people are selfish and disrespectful of others,” said Park Jung-eun, an office worker in Seoul, told The Korea Herald.

“In winter, it is disgusting to find these round-shaped spit marks on the ground, frozen.”

For Lee Ji-eun, 26, it just does not make sense that people spit in public.

“I would accept it, if it was for health- or medical-related reasons. But most of the time, they are not. Spitting is an action which automatically causes me to dislike the person,” Lee said.

“When a man makes that glottal noises to drag up phlegm from the bottom of his throat, it is the worst.”

Punishing public spitting

Obviously, the sight of people someone spitting is unpleasant. Some countries have legally banned the behavior in public. In London, England, people who spit in public can be hit with an 80 pound ($100) on-the-spot fine, which is issued by park wardens and litter patrols. A city in India recently established a law requiring spitters to clean up their own saliva along with paying a fine. In Singapore, a country famous for its tough laws on public cleanliness, the fine for spitting in public is S$1,000 ($730).

Korea also legally recognizes the behavior as a misdemeanor subject to a fine, and possibly imprisonment. According to Punishment of Minor Offenses Act, any person who spits or urinates on streets, in parks or at other places where many people gather can be fined up to 100,000 won ($88).

But the law is not actively enforced and many people are unaware that spitting is even illegal.

“I have never thought spitting was a crime. I do not think I have heard of someone getting punished for it,” said an office worker in Gwanghwamun in central Seoul, taking a cigarette break.

“Everybody does it, and it is not like the spit causes harm or accidents. It just dries out.”

Along with the weak law enforcement, Korean society is not so clear-cut on whether public spitting should be viewed as a crime.

‘Spitting habits culturally different’

How a society perceives shooting off spittle may be influenced by cultural beliefs and sentiments, says Ross Coomber, a sociology professor at Plymouth University of England.

To “explore the nature of, and attitudes towards, public spitting,” Coomber traveled to Mumbai, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, Tokyo, Seoul and Shanghai in the summer of 2013. From his observations, he concluded that the “three most significant spitting nations are India, South Korea and China (among the countries he traveled).”

For India, it appeared to be connected to their chewing of betel nuts, while Chinese spat to “cleanse” -- to remove the bad out of their body. In South Korea, Coomber observed it was often closely related to smoking.

Of all the reasons people spit -- due to phlegm from cold, or bad taste in the mouth -- it is most frequently seen by smokers, spitting every few seconds. The smoking rate of men, who are the primary smokers in this country, revealed this month showed the lowest ever at 38.1 percent. Still, designated smoking areas are often covered with spit marks.

“There appears to be little shame about public spitting in Seoul. There are no anti-spitting campaigns that we are aware of and in this sense spitting is not high on the public consciousness,” Coomber wrote.

Social norms and habits do not change easily. For a social perception to change, it will need consent from a majority of people, explained Lee Byeong-hoon, a sociology professor at Chung-Ang University.

“Government campaigns that call for such changes in norms delivered down to the people often fail. For these cultural changes, approval from the people is crucial,” Lee told The Korea Herald.

Laws also lose power when they are not enforced properly, Lee added.

There have been campaigns to raise awareness on spitting, but only temporarily, when international events took place, such as G20 Summit held here in 2010. It came as part of the government’s effort to “improve the brand value of the nation” in foreigners’ eyes.

“I think spitting is only a habitual behavior of individuals. I am a smoker myself, but I do not feel the need to spit. I hope more people become aware that their actions can be disturbing to others,” Ji Jeong-hyeon, an office worker in Seoul, said.

By Jo He-rim (
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