South Korea etiquette and traditions
I bet you always dreamed about visiting South Korea and finally you reserved the plane tickets, booked your hotel and packed your bags. Well, you made the right decision. South Korea is a very beautiful country with a rich culture and intriguing history. And we might add, a very safe place to visit.
Either it is day or night, you can walk around without being afraid for your safety. And if we specifically talk about Seoul, this city comes alive at night with locals and tourists heading out to hunt for bargains and devour amazing and tasty snacks, so yes, it is safe to go out at night. We promise.
Teach yourself some South Korean culture
If you want to visit South Korea, you will first need to educate yourself about South Korean culture and society, as well as the social customs and unique etiquette you need to display while visiting.
Generally, South Korea is a very liberal country, however, one needs to be aware of it’s traditions and try to accommodate them as much as possible, in order to have a good time, all the time during the stay.
- The first, most notable concept you need to keep in mind while visiting South Korea is “Kibun“. There is no literal translation in english for this word, but you can think of it like pride, mood, feeling, dignity, personal well-being,”face”. It is essential to avoid hurting someone’s “kibun”. If you hurt someone’s kibun you hurt their pride, cause them to lose dignity and that’s really a NO NO. Korean people interpersonal relations are based on the principle of harmony.
- Always maintain a comfy, peaceful atmosphere , even if in order to do that, you may sometimes need to tell a “white lie”
- Try, as much as possible, to determine people’s state of mind in order to preserve their kibun. Watch their body language, listen to the tone of their voice, listen to what they say and try to evaluate them properly, so you do not accidentally hurt their feelings. The ability to do all this evaluation is called “Nunchi“
- In South Korea, do not address to people with their given name. They should be addressed using their titles if any, or simply with Mr, Mrs, etc, until you are allowed otherwise.
- The traditional way of greeting in South Korea is bowing. Handshaking is also quite common, accompanying the bow among men.
- When shaking hands, your left arm should support your right forearm.
- While greeting women, they may not always shake hands and many times they will slightly nod instead of bowing.
- At all times, bow to individuals when departing.
- You may find yourself in awkward situations while communicating with others, since in South Korea nobody likes to say “no” in order to avoid being rude or impolite. Therefore, sometimes discussions may take much longer just because the conversation partner avoids declining or refusing.
- Obvious display of disquiet, either verbal or visual, means something really went bad and you should really think about ways to make amends.
- Do not gesticulate excessively, and maintain your body language to a minimum in most discussions.
- If you need to hand over a business card or a gift, or if you have to receive something, use both hands or support your right arms with your left.
- A deeper bow denotes a high respect, trust and satisfaction.
- Hugging and patting someone’s back if you unfamiliar with them is insulting, so refrain yourself from touching anyone, at least until you get close to each other and the relationship allows you to do that.
- Avoid prolonged direct eye contact as it is interpreted as a challenge, mainly if interacting with individuals of a higher social stand.
- Keep your body in it’s own space and limit your arms movements when explaining something. Do not extend your legs or keep them crossed. Any of these habits, which would appear normal for westerners, are considered as invading others’ personal space.
- When calling someone to you, do not use index finger to point, but use your hand palm down in a claw movement.
- If you receive an invitation to a Korean home make sure you prepare with a gift for the hostess: chocolate, sweets, cake or flowers and avoid alcohol.
- When visiting Korean friends, as much as possibly make sure that you prepare from home with western gifts as they enjoy them quite a lot.
- While having dinner invited by a Korean person, please make sure you wait to be seated. If given the seat of honour (looking at the entrance) it is polite to show a slight objection, even if in the end you will sit on that place.
- Always pass the food and plates with your both hands or, as applying to other cases, with your right arm supported by the left arm.
- On most occasions you will be invited to after dinners drinks and party. make sure you do not refuse the invitation.
- Never point out with your chopsticks and do not leave them sticking out of your bowl.
- Remove your shoes when entering a Korean home at all times.
- Never pour drinks to yourself. The host will do this for you and usually, women will pour drinks for men but not for other women. If you can’t drink anymore, try to leave your glass partially full, but if it’s empty do not refuse another drink.
- Do not put your feet on furniture pieces.
- Do not eat or drink while walking
- When buying gifts for Korean people do not buy four of something. It is considered extremely unlucky as number four pronunciation resembles the Korean word for “death”.
- Don’t give tips if there’s a “no tipping” sign. Generally South Korea is a no-tipping culture. Nobody expects a tip but there might be some exceptions like in tourism industry. However, if you want to be on the safe side, do not give tips away. It may be considered insulting most of the times.
- Do not place yourself too close to people you are meeting for the first time; keep an arms length between you and the others.
Practice and repeat
While it may seem hard to understand all Korean traditions and abide by them, practicing and trying to observe the people around you may actually help and in time, become second nature. There’s harmony in everything Korean people do and you are expected to follow the lead.
You can watch three “Must-Know” Korean hand gestures that you will frequently see in South Korea on Minji‘s YouTube Channel or in the video below.
Korean people will not expect you to master all the nuances of the Korean culture, but they will surely appreciate if you show interest in matters that are important to them. They are highly sociable people, they have a vast interest in foreign cultures, they like to entertain and be entertained and generally are extremely friendly.
Be open minded
So, to bring a closure to our list of Do’s and Don’ts, if you have the willingness to learn something new and you want to have an unforgettable memory of your trip in South Korea, then paying attention to the points above might be exactly what you need. Being open minded is the most important aspect of socializing and if you do not have the proper mindset, your experience might be the worst.