Scared of making a whole bunch of cultural faux pas? Worried that you might offend your host or friendly strangers you meet whilst you’re in Korea? Don’t want to cause an international scene that will make the front page of major newspapers (I’m looking at you, Bill Gates!). Then you need this absolutely essential Guide to Korean Etiquette.
Built up after years of living in Korea, research on Korean customs, cultures, and beliefs, and (unfortunately) a lot of etiquette mistakes. This guide to Korean etiquette will show you how to make friends and not alienate people when you travel to Korea.
Covering a whole range of situations where you can break hidden cultural and etiquette rules, such as eating together or making new friends, this guide to Korean etiquette will be a life saver for you!
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Why Should I Read A Guide To Korean Etiquette?
Korean culture has evolved very differently from many other countries in the West, and even other Asian countries. This guide to Korean etiquette is here to help you understand how to avoid making mistakes and cultural faux pas when visiting South Korea. Furthermore, it’ll hopefully open your eyes to the hidden, deeper elements of Korean culture.
Top 3 Tips For Understanding Korean Culture
To understand the rules for Korean etiquette, it is first necessary to understand some basic principles about Korean culture and how it is different from your own culture.
These 3 points only touch the surface of Korean culture, but should give you a basic introduction into what makes Korea so unique.
If you’d like a deeper insight into living in Korea as an expat, and some of the challenges and benefits of Korean culture, then check out my guide to expat life in Korea.
1: Group Harmony Vs. Individual Needs
There is a lot to understand about Korean culture, a lot more than I can cover in this guide to Korean etiquette. A lot of public morals and values stem from the teachings of Confucius, who promoted harmony within society, compassion, and empathy above individual needs and wants.
The effect this has on society takes a long time to fully appreciate, but basically equates to Koreans putting others before themselves. I’m not saying this always happens, but it is shown most often in social situations, such as in restaurants.
Similarly, people who disrupt the group harmony with their individual issues might be frowned upon. Hopefully this won’t be an issue when you travel to Korea, but it’s worth knowing anyway.
2: Respect For Elders
As with many cultures, respect goes upwards in age and older people are respected more than younger ones. Due to Confucian teachings that have been prevalent in Korean society for a long time, age is even more important than normal.
Age can dictate the way you act or behave to someone, who gets to get on the subway first, who eats at dinner first, and even who pays for meals when you’re out. You might be asked your age so that people can figure out where you fit in the hierarchy. Therefore, you shouldn’t be surprised if this question comes up a few times.
Although modern Korean society is diminishing this hierarchy, perhaps for the worst in some cases, it is important to be aware of. Try to treat elders with respect in South Korea, as I hope most people would do anyway.
3: Nationalism Is Strong In South Korea
Korea has a high level of nationalism and people take pride in their country and national symbols, such as the Taegugki (national flag).
The reason for this stems from a history of battling between strong, larger neighbours. In other words, Japan and China. Without covering the whole of Korean history, nationalism has been promoted to reinforce Korea’s national pride and unique identity.
Having been occupied by Japan until 1945, the consequences of which were quite severe, Korea has worked hard to make its place in the world.
Now, Koreans can be proud of their growing economic, cultural, and sporting achievements on the world stage. If you want to make friends in Korea, it’s always good to point out these achievements.
Dining Out Guide To Korean Etiquette
It’s understandable that you would be too excited focusing on the many delicious traditional Korean dishes to remember all the ways that you might break with Korean etiquette.
What may seem to be a simple activity – eating – can actually throw up so many opportunities for etiquette mistakes. However, with this simple guide to Korean etiquette for dining out, you can easily avoid any problems.
Here are some of the most important things to know when dining out:
1: Shoes Are Not Always Allowed Inside
Many restaurants in South Korea have traditional floor tables with no chairs. If you see a restaurant with a shoe rack by the entrance, then you should take your shoes off before you enter. The floor will usually be raised to indicate that shoes shouldn’t be worn, too.
Sometimes there will be a mixture of dining options, with regular tables and chairs and then a raised section with a wooden floor and low tables. There is a barrier to indicate that you need to take your shoes off.
If in doubt, point at your feet and make a ‘should-I-take-them-off?‘ gesture.
2: Wait For Elders To Eat Before You Do
This applies if you’re having a formal dinner with Korean people, particularly in a business situation. As mentioned, age is very important in Korean society and the respectful thing to do is wait for the oldest member to start the dinner.
This also applies to finishing your meal. However, this isn’t so important among friends.
3: Help Others Before You Help Yourself
This applies to a couple of things.
Firstly, the cutlery (chopsticks and spoon) are usually kept in a drawer under the table, or in a box on the table. In Korea, it is expected that the person nearest the cutlery will pass it out to other people before themselves. It’s often best to place the spoon and chopsticks together on a paper napkin and pass it to the other person.
Secondly, when drinks arrive at the table, be sure to pour for other people first. Fill up other glasses before you get a drink, which leads on to the next point…
4: Don’t Pour Your Own Drinks
If there are drinks being poured (such as for a toast), then don’t pour one for yourself. someone else will pour it for you – it’s considered rude to pour for yourself.
Again, this is more relevant to social situations where there are several people, not an issue for tourists. There’s more to know about drinks though…
5: When Pouring Drinks For Other People, Use Two Hands
If you don’t use two hands when pouring drinks in South Korea, you could be considered rude.
The two hand rule applies to other things (to be discussed), but here it’s a matter of showing respect to the person you’re serving. Either place your hand on your wrist, or somewhere along your arm.
There’s a kind of scale whereby the closer to the hand pouring your other hand is, the more respect you’re showing. Placing your spare hand on your elbow still shows respect, just not as much.
6: Look Away When Drinking A Shot
Koreans love to drink soju (the world’s most popular liquor) and it’s the go-to drink when having a party or celebration of any kind. People will walk around the table and pour a shot of soju for another person. That person is expected to drink the shot and then pour a shot back for the other person.
When this situation arises, turn away while you drink the shot and don’t look at the person who poured the drink. This is considered rude and you wouldn’t want to offend someone making such a kind gesture. Although, you might not find the gesture so kind when you have headache in the morning!
7: Don’t Lick Your Fingers When Eating
It’s considered rude and dirty to lick your fingers and food should be eaten with chopsticks where possible (not easy with Korean BBQ or ribs!). You will find wet tissues to clean your hands on if you do need to get your fingers dirty.
You can also use tissues to hide any bones, which are also a sensitive issue when eating. Best to hide them if you can.
8: Be Careful With Your Chopsticks
Chopsticks are very flexible and can be used to eat a wide range of food with a bit of practice. However, there are some things you definitely shouldn’t do with chopsticks, namely pointing them at other people. Try to keep them pointed down at your food or towards your mouth.
Another big taboo is placing your chopsticks straight up in a bowl of rice. This applies to several other countries where Buddhism is prevalent. This is because this action represents incense sticks in funeral ceremonies and is very bad luck. Rest chopsticks on a napkin or on your bowl.
9: Don’t Tip In Restaurants
Some people will be shocked to hear about this, but tipping is a big no-no in South Korea. The price you see on the menu is the price you will pay (tax is included) and tipping is not added nor expected. In fact, people won’t accept any money you leave behind.
I’ve had people hand back cash that I’ve given as a tip and the only time a tip has ever been included is in some of the more expensive hotels or some special events.
I believe the philosophy behind this is that if the meal was good, you’ll come back again, which is reward enough.
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Travelling Around Guide To Korean Etiquette
Travellers to South Korea may feel both amazed and confused by all the wonderful public transport options available.
Whether you find it easy or hard to get around, there are some ways you can make your journey easier by following this travelling around guide to Korean etiquette.
Here are some essential etiquette issues to know about when travelling.
10: Patience Is A Virtue And Queueing Is The Way
In Korea, people wait patiently and queue up when getting on a bus, train or subway. There are lines to show where to wait and spaces to allow people to disembark.
If you’re visiting Korea, do your best to follow the locals and wait patiently and in line. Subways in Seoul can be very busy, but if you wait in line, you’ll get on eventually.
Here’s a useful guide about queuing in South Korea and the cultural peculiarities behind it.
11: Age Matters When Travelling
I mentioned at the start of this guide to Korean etiquette that age is an important part of Korean culture. You will see seats reserved for elderly, disabled, pregnant, or injured people on the subway and buses. Try to avoid sitting on them, and definitely give up your seat to someone who needs it more than you.
A quick cultural note – Korea has a large (and growing) population of retirees and they are surprisingly active. Due to the age-based hierarchical system that they grew up in, they expect everyone to get out of their way when they get onto the subway, even if that means pushing everyone out of their way!
This can be a bit shocking, even unsettling, for people who are not used to it, but it’s just a part of Korean culture you have to accept and tolerate. It’s best to be aware of it at least, so you can be prepared for it.
12: Be Careful With Food And Drinks
This is more common sense than etiquette, but it’s important to be careful when eating and drinking on public transport. In fact, Seoul recently made it illegal to eat and drink on buses.
Eating on the train, especially on long journeys, is usually fine. I often grab a kimbap or sandwich for the long journey between Seoul and Daejeon or other places.
Try not to spill your drinks, and try not to leave waste behind.
Socialising Guide To Korean Etiquette
As with the dining out guide to Korean etiquette, these recommendations may apply more to business situations. That’s not to say they don’t still apply to meeting random strangers or interacting with locals. There are some things you should remember when meeting any Koreans.
This guide will help you make the right impression with people in Korea.
13: Shake Hands With Two Hands
This may seem trivial, but the handshake is a sign of respect in South Korea and not doing it correctly can be considered rude.
How rude? Well, when Bill Gates met the former South Korean president, he kept one hand in his pocket. This was considered to be so rude that it made front page news across the world! His problem was only shaking with one hand and keeping the other in his pocket. As mentioned previously regarding pouring drinks, two hands are better than one.
When shaking hands, shake with one hand and place the other hand somewhere between your wrist or elbow. You can also tuck your spare hand under your arm as if you’re hugging yourself. Also try to bow when shaking hands, to at least the same level as the other person.
I believe this goes back to court intrigue hundreds of years ago, where people had to show both hands to prove they weren’t holding a knife or poison to kill the other person with.
14: Give And Receive With Two Hands
Following on from a handshake, you should also try to give and receive things with two hands, especially in a formal situation. This includes receiving business cards, presents, hotel keys, or such things.
Likewise, if you’re giving something to the other person, hold the item with two hands and offer it towards the other person as if you’re putting a tray in an oven.
15: Be Careful With Business Cards
Not only should business cards be handled with two hands, they should also be treated with respect. Receiving a business card is a serious matter and you should show appreciation for it.
Try to avoid bending or damaging the card, and spend a bit of time appreciating it. Leave it out on display until you or the other person leave. I’ve been handed many business cards by random people during my time in Korea.
Most recently was from a former mayor of a district who was out campaigning in the local neighbourhood. He gave it to me in a restaurant while I was eating dinner, which might seem strange, but is kind of normal here. I smiled, thanked him, remarked on the nice picture, and held on to it until he had moved on to the next table.
16: Try To Avoid Using Personal Names Until You Know The Other Person
Some Koreans will happily tell you their full names and be happy to be called by their personal (first) names. However, if you’re unsure, or you’re in a business situation, it’s best to refer to the other person by their surname.
For example, Mr. Kim or Mrs. Song. If they ask you to call them by their first name, then go ahead.
17: Never Write Names In Red Ink
This is a pretty serious one and I’ve been in trouble for doing it in the past. If you only remember one part of my guide to Korean etiquette, make sure it’s this one. Especially if you’re going to be writing in front of Korean people.
Koreans used to write the names of deceased people in red ink. Doing the same indicates that you either wish they were dead, or else want to do them harm. Be safe and stick to black or blue ink.
18: Try To Avoid Close Physical Contact
Hugging and shoulder pats are not really acceptable between strangers and you will probably make Koreans feel uncomfortable if you try to do this. Hand shakes are great, but physical contact is reserved for friends and family.
Younger people may not follow this rule so strictly, however. Indeed, you might be shocked with just how much physical contact there can be between people, even in public.
I’ve seen grown men sitting on each other’s laps or hugging on the subway, and in saunas it’s not unusual for a friend to scrub their friend’s back.
19: Don’t Cross Your Legs When Facing Someone
In South Korea, it is considered rude to cross your legs in the presence of other people. It is actually much more acceptable to sit with your legs straight or open a bit. Crossing your legs is seen as being lazy or disrespectful to the other person. Therefore, try to sit up straight and keep your hands on your lap.
I’m confused about this one as it is the opposite to how I was raised in England. However, that’s all part of learning to appreciate a different culture and its customs. This is a guide to Korean etiquette, but you might want to see how many differences you can find between your own country’s ways of doing things.
Public Behaviour Guide To Korean Etiquette
The final area to consider in this guide to Korean etiquette can also be one of the most important. Save the best for last, right?
These tips will help you avoid embarrassing yourself or causing offence when out in Korea.
20: Be Careful With Public Displays Of Affection
More commonly referred to as PDA, this is a sensitive issue in South Korea. Although not as strictly enforced as in other countries (e.g. Thailand), public displays of affection such as kissing and hugging are frowned upon in Korea.
Korea is a conservative society and such displays will offend some people, older generations in particular. Some older guys have even shouted at me a few times for kissing in public, so please take it seriously.
Again, this trend is dying with the younger generations and you will probably see plenty of young couples kissing and holding hands in public. Not as many as you would see in America or the UK, but the number is definitely growing.
That being said, you’re a guest in another culture, so please respect their customs and values and try to keep your affection in private if you can. Or you can wear couple clothing.
21: Don’t Walk And Drink Or Eat
This is a strange one for me as I’m used to drinking coffee as I travel, but eating and drinking whilst walking can be considered rude in South Korea. Instead, you should find somewhere to eat or drink before moving on again.
This kind of makes sense as you can make a mess or even bump into people when walking and filling your mouth. Korea is a busy country and a lot of people rush about. Therefore, it can be wise to not make a mess of yourself or someone else by spilling coffee on them!
22: Sniff It, Don’t Blow It
I’ll finish on an unusual topic – blowing your nose. This guide to Korean etiquette wouldn’t be complete without including the rule that I break most often, especially during winter. Koreans find it rude to blow your nose, especially when eating. People here will sniff a hundred times rather than blow their nose.
Of course, there are some health reasons for sniffing, but it seems like a much harder way to relieve your problems than blowing your nose. I wouldn’t worry about this one too much, unless you have a loud blow.
Try to avoid blowing your nose too hard in public if you can.
Is That All I Need To Know?
Sadly, there are so many thousands of little things about Korean culture and I can’t cover them all in a simple guide to Korean etiquette. Besides, I’m still discovering things even after years of living here, and I’m sure I make etiquette mistakes without even knowing it.
This list has covered some of the most common Korean etiquette problems travellers to South Korea might face. If you have any others you’d like to share, please leave a comment at the end. I’d be happy to add them to this guide to Korean etiquette so that we can all learn from our experiences in Korea together.
If you want to learn more about Korean culture, then you may enjoy these other articles:
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