Culture is an integral part of people’s lives. It influences values, perspectives, opinions, and even humour. The essence of learning culture before visiting a foreign country is to establish communication with inhabitants or at least get relationships off to the right start. While we cannot escape the differences that exist between us, it is good to learn social cues to avoid being disrespectful or discriminative. Learning other people’s culture can also help us fit in a community with diverse groups and work with other people towards a common goal. That is why in this list we explore some of the prominent cultural habits that might surprise you in your visit to Korea – but in essence, help you survive culture shock.
Korean culture follows Confucianism, which envisions a society with a clear hierarchy. Everyone holds a rank in the society depending on age, social status or family relations. Hence why people’s interactions involve signifiers that highlight people’s ranks in society. With that in mind, it is considered rude to address someone using their given name unless they have allowed you to. Instead, you should always refer to someone as Mr/Mrs (then their surname) at all times, especially in professional settings where it is considered rude to call someone using his/her first name.
In Korea, the use of someone’s first name implies intimacy or superiority in terms of family ranks and age.
South Korea is one of the most racially pure countries in the world so expect a homogenous ethnicity; except for a small percentage who are foreigners living in the country.
While respect is universal, South Korea is a country where the spoken language signals hierarchy and social status. There are speech variations, but “yo” at the end of a phrase/sentence is a common honorific added to honour age and show respect.
Age determines speech patterns which change depending on the age of the speaker and listener. This makes it a crucial factor in interactions and it is normally stated during introductions. Therefore, don’t take offence whenever someone asks your age during the first encounter. In essence, they want to know if you are older than them so they can address you using honorifics or drop the honorifics for casual speech.
Dropping honorifics with older people is a sign of disrespect and could land you in trouble.
Unlike western culture, which might not put much thought into physical contact or skinship as Koreans call it, any form of touch in Korea is considered a big deal. Normally you are supposed to bow when greeting/acknowledging an older person. Hugging or any other form of greeting that requires touch is risky and could make people uncomfortable. As you will notice even a handshake is relative and some people might feel very uncomfortable if you initiate it, especially if they’re very conservative/elderly.
A handshake is only allowed in business meetings and on most occasions, it is between men. That is why it is safe to bow. However, if an elder initiates a handshake, use the left hand to support the right hand, then give a firm handshake accompanied with a slight bow. This act is also used when receiving gifts or when passing/receiving food or drinks in a table to show courtesy/appreciation. One should also bow before departing.
Women should not shake hands with the opposite gender. Sometimes instead of a full bow, they will nod slightly to show acknowledgement. This is in exception of traditional/ conservative settings where someone should bow fully as a sign of trust, respect and honour.
Respect for people’s personal space in Korea is shown through;
Avoiding any physical contact with people you are not familiar with. Speaking of which, familiarity should not be confused with being acquainted. Not unless someone has outrightly asked you to become their friend and you have agreed, it is considered overt/uncomfortable to exercise-friendly mannerisms with them.
Do not stand too close either. Maintain arm’s length distance, especially with people you are meeting for the first time.
When taking pictures, it is safe to emulate Keanu Reeves. Similarly, you are not expected to touch people who you are not close with, even when taking selfies with them. A safe way to handle this situation without inconveniencing anyone is to use the peace sign – Koreans call it ‘kimchi’ – or yet stand back to avoid contact altogether.
Koreans appreciate giving and receiving gifts, therefore if invited to a Korean home bring along a simple gift but wrap it beautifully. Use bright colours like green, yellow, pink to wrap the gift but never use dark colours or red. Dark colours are gloomy and red or gifts with red writing imply that you wish death upon the receiver. While we are at it, avoid gift in sets of four, or using the number four. This is considered inauspicious due to the similar pronunciation of the Korean word for death to the number four.
Since it is also cultural to give and return gifts in equal measure/value, avoid expensive gifts as this makes one feel indebted or signifies that you are likely to ask for strange favours.
Alcohol is not an ideal gift in Korea, unless in business meetings. First business meetings are often accompanied by gift-giving. Hence, if alcohol is your choice, prepare an expensive bottle of good scotch or so. 10 tips on business etiquette.
Koreans drink on almost every occasion. When sad, happy, in a celebratory mood or at a funeral. Therefore, expect to receive requests to accompany people for a drink from time to time. Remember saying no might not be an option as drinking is seen as a chance to build relations.
Soju is the national drink. So don’t be surprised as to why everyone is buying the drink in a green bottle.
Age matters in such contexts as well. Therefore, if you are the youngest in the group you may be expected to pour drinks for others in addition to setting and clearing the table. That is if the dinner is hosted at home.
When drinking in the presence of an older person, even if it’s your spouse hold your glass with both hands, turn your head to your right then gulp. This is recognised as a sign of common courtesy in South Korea.
It is common etiquette to wait for the host to be seated before doing so. While this practice might not apply in all contexts, especially at home or any other casual setting, in a Korean household it is important to wait until the eldest person is seated and has taken the first bite before digging in.
In restaurants, do not tip if there’s a no-tipping sign.
Like in religious places or people’s houses, in some restaurants, you might be required to remove your shoes.
Ever heard of the quote No is a full sentence, use it, use it? In Korean culture, things might not be that simple. Saying no is considered poor etiquette. Even arguing, especially in an open place can be quite the tussle because you are not supposed to pinpoint or fault someone outrightly. By doing so you risk hurting their pride and coming off as disrespectful, which is considered a social crime in Korea. Therefore, in such contexts relatively most people will use euphemisms to avoid hurting another’s pride or make them lose face. Patience and politeness are key virtues to be observed in all settings regardless of the dynamics.
Most dishes will require you to use chopsticks. On the occasion that you are eating out using chopsticks, do not leave them sticking out in a bowl. Do not point with your chopsticks too. Importantly, if you invited friends, colleagues or acquaintances for dinner, settle the bill for everyone unless you had agreed on something else beforehand.
Avoid eating or drinking while walking or in public places. Mahindi choma scenarios, chips or maebemwitu are like taboos in South Korea. Yes, you can buy street food, but finish it at the shack/tent you bought it.
You should never place your thumb between your index and middle finger in the presence of someone. This is considered obscene and the act is similar to giving them the middle finger. Do not point at someone either, even in a casual manner. It is considered rude and distasteful. On that note, when calling someone over, with your palm down, use the standard gesture of claw movement to signal them to come to you.
While the mentioned might not exhaust all cultural norms of this Asian country, there are a few essentials you can always focus on during international travels.
Acknowledge your lack of familiarity with the local culture. People will be more understanding and grant you grace.
Try to get familiar with the different cultural habits as cultural norms will affect communication/understanding.
Always use respect as your lead card instead of assuming that people will accommodate your culture.
I am a writer with interest in hair, beauty and fashion. I also like telling stories, but most of all I enjoy listening and reading them. If I'm not doing any of the above, I will be trying to crack a game of chess or monopoly. My biggest fear is being ordinary.