Whether you live in South Korea or are just visiting, knowing a bit about the culture will allow you to get much more out of your time there. Having a basic understanding of Korean culture and etiquette will not only prevent any unwanted disrespect or embarrassment but, will also allow for a more meaningful understanding of the South Korean people. Here are 10 essential things you should know about South Korean culture and etiquette.
1. Kimchi is k-culture
Whenever you speak about Korean culture most people will mention or know about Kimchi. This dish of sliced cabbage, fermented in anchovy paste and a red chilli sauce is eaten at every meal as a side dish or even as an ingredient in the main dish. ALL Koreans love Kimchi and it is the most prominent representation of their culture. Some foreigners struggle to enjoy the dishes strong spicy, and sour flavor but those who do will never fail to impress the locals.
2. Age is important
In Korean culture age holds the most prominent status. The eldest person in the room will always hold the utmost respect. So, when in doubt, shadow a senior in the room and you can’t really go wrong. Be aware not to make too much eye contact with those older than you and never cross your legs when sitting across from someone of senior status. Always offer your seat to the elderly on subways or buses and always allow the eldest to begin eating first at the table.
3. Greetings and Goodbyes
Koreans bow as both a greeting and farewell. The Korean bow is extremely important in showing respect especially to those older or of higher rank. Even if you do not know the language a bow will always suffice in greeting or acknowledgement. Be sure to bow at each person individually when meeting or leaving people.
4. Shoes off
Korean floors are used to sit, eat and often sleep so taking off your shoes before entering a Koreans home is extremely important. In many cases removing your shoes and putting on “inside slippers” is mandatory in buildings such as schools. Moreover, restaurants in which you sit on the floor to eat will always require you to remove your shoes before going in.
5. Beware of “ajumma’s” (old ladys)
South Korea is a relatively small country and its stony mountainous terrain allows for limited areas for building. This means that there is a large amount of people in very small spaces and people are not afraid to push and shove to get onto the buses, subway or to a particular item on a shop shelf. Very rarely will you hear “excuse me” or any form of apology for almost being sent to the floor. The “ajumma’s” (old lady’s) are notoriously ruthless and their elbows become weapons of mass demolition even in large spaces.
6. Food for thought
Food and eating is an enormous part of Korean culture and it is always shared in a very social setting. Always wait to be told where to sit and allow the eldest person to begin the eating process. As most Korean meals are made up of a variety of side dishes spread across the table it is not considered rude to reach across anyone to grab something from a dish further away. Rice and soups can be eaten with a spoon but most other things will be eaten with chopsticks. Do not lift your bowls off the table and never use your chopsticks to point. When in doubt at the dining table simply follow those around you and you will seldom ever go wrong.
Alcohol plays a large role in Korean culture and their national alcoholic beverage is Soju, a transparent vodka-like drink that is typically taken as a shot, usually with food. Drinking is seen as a way to build friendships and there is often alcohol involved in some form at business meetings. Koreans follow a strict protocol for drinking: you never pour your own drink, always hold your glass with two hands when someone pours you a drink, put one hand on your heart or pouring arm when you pour a drink for someone else and always turn away from those older than you as you drink. Refusing a drink is considered rude and a “mood killer” so it’s always best to accept and then discreetly get rid of it (take a small sip and throw the rest into your water glass).
8. Red ink
Deceased family member names would be written red ink in the past in South Korea. Thus if you wrote a person’s name in red ink and they were still living you were wishing harm or death to them. Although this is a rather outdated superstition it is still considered extremely rude to write a person’s name in red ink. So all those teachers out there, best to avoid those red inked pens we usually like so much.
9. Gift giving
Gifts are always reciprocated and illustrate a great deal about a relationship. Fruit in South Korea is horrendously expensive and so is therefore often given as a gift. Bringing good quality chocolates or flowers when invited to a Koreans home is also acceptable. Gifts should always be given and received with both hands and should never be opened when received.
10. Pooches for “pood”
Indeed, some Koreans do eat dog meat. However, most South Koreans are aware of the negative image it may portray to foreigners and will often deny this. The government has also attempted to shut down dog soup restaurants (boshingtang) in order to improve the country’s international image.
Dog meat is mainly eaten by men in the summer months as it is believed to be very healthy and “good for stamina”.