CUSTOMS AND ETIQUETTE IN KOREA
Westerners sometimes have a hard time figuring out all the customs and formalities in Korea: where and when to take off one's shoes; what kind of gift to bring to what kind of occasion; what kind of duties are required to be a good neighbor, good coworker and seat-mate on a train. Don't worry too much, however. Westerners aren't expected to know all Korean customs and if mistakes are made or a custom is forgotten it usually is no big deal.
Chunghee Sarah Soh wrote in “Countries and Their Cultures”: “Koreans are very status conscious, and their speech behavior reflects the hierarchical relationship between social actors. Except among former classmates and other very close friends, adults do not use first names to address each other. Position titles such as "professor," "manager," "director," and "president" are used in combination with the honorific suffix nim to address a social superior. [Source: Chunghee Sarah Soh, “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]
“Koreans are generally courteous to the extent of being ceremonious when they interact with social superiors but can be very outgoing and friendly among friends and acquaintances of equal social status. Their behavior with strangers in urban public situations may be characterized by indifference and self-centeredness. Koreans appear to be rude to strangers since they generally do not say a word when they accidentally push or jostle other people on the streets, and in the stores, train stations, and airports. Traditional Confucian teaching emphasized propriety in the five sets of human relationships, which included the relations between sovereign and subject, father and son, husband and wife, senior and junior, and friend and friend. Confucianism still serves as the standard of moral and social conduct for many people.”
Koreans like to ask a lot of questions and talk about families. Avoid talking about politics or North Korea unless you know someone very well. Koreans tend to walk to the left on stairs and sidewalks.
Greetings, Names and Titles in Korea
Instead of saying "hello" or "good afternoon" Koreans often greet one another by asking each other where they are going or if they have had lunch. Koreans also say "thank you" and "excuse me" much less than Westerners. They have other expressions that convey the same meaning. Koreans often think Westerners and Japanese say "thank you" and "excuse me" too often.
In Korea, the first name is the family name, followed by a given name. Married women continue to use their maiden names but add a prefix that is the equivalent of "Mrs." Only when associating with Westerners do Korean women occasionally identify themselves by their husband's surname. It is a very common practice in Korea to exchange business cards when meeting someone for the first time as a way of introduction. [Source: Cities of the World, The Gale Group Inc., 2002]
Koreans seldom address one another by their first names. In Korea it is rude to call someone by their first names unless you've known them since childhood. In work-related situations people address each other by their title; at home terms of kinship are used. Neighbors are referred by using their children's names: so-and-so father and such-and-such's mother.
Koreans have something like 30 different words for uncle and there are five different languages depending on the status of the people talking. Terms of kinship are also for close non-relatives. A younger man often calls a man who is five years older than him his "big brother" and someone who is considerably old as "uncle." There are more complex systems of honorifics used for addressing strangers and acquaintance that are difficult for Westerners to master.
Koreans don't smile or exchange greeting with strangers. Smiling or being friendly to someone you don't know well is considered rude and too familiar. If three people meet on street and two of them know each other they will often converse without introducing the third person.
Bows, Handshakes and the Bill Gates Faux Pas
Koreans have traditionally bowed to one another as a greeting, a parting gesture and an alternative to waving or saying "Hi." These days, among men, bows are accompanied by — or have been displaced by — handshakes. Bows are carefully calibrated to show different levels of respect. A short, clipped bow is used for the staff at a store. A slower, deeper bow is used for one's boss or department head, and the deepest bows are reserved for the company president or member of the board of directors. Young usually initiate a bow to their elders. Children have traditionally gotten on their hands and knees and prostrated themselves before their elders during certain ceremonies and holidays.
Koreans usually shake hands with Westerners. Sometimes they shake for too long and have a limp rather than firm grip. Americans tend to prefer hearty handshakes and often consider Korean greetings as weak and effeminate. When a Western man meets a Korean woman he should to see if she offers her hand before offering to shake hands. It is disrespectful to shake hands with your other hand in your pocket as you can see from below.
In April 2013, Bill Gates, the world’s richest at the time, was accused of disrespecting Park Geun-hye, the South Korean president, after being pictured shaking hands with her, with one hand in his pocket. AFP reported: The picture of the meet-and-greet between the Microsoft founder and Ms Park was front page news across the country. Some newspapers cropped out the offending pocketed hand, but most chose to highlight it. "Cultural difference, or an act of disrespect?" the JoongAng Ilbo wrote in the accompanying caption. "Disrespectful handshake? Casual handshake?" the Dong-A Ilbo asked. [Source: AFP, April 23 2013]
While the presidential Blue House declined to comment, social networking sites were clogged with opinion. "Even considering the cultural difference, there is an appropriate manner for certain occasions ... how can he put his hand in his pocket when meeting a leader of the state?" tweeted @msryu67. Some news portals posted montages of Mr Gates shaking hands with other world leaders, which showed that he has some form when it comes to informal greetings. In a 2008 meeting with Ms Park's predecessor Lee Myung-Bak, Gates also kept one hand pocketed, although a 2001 picture with then-President Kim Dae-Jung showed him adopting a more respectful, two-handed shake.
"Gates is a casual man who's not bound by customs so he shakes hands in this manner even when meeting heads of international organisations or top political figures," Dong-A Ilbo quoted an unnamed friend of his in Seoul as saying. Some Koreans suggested the media criticism was misplaced. "Please, people ... don't think your Confucian mindset is a universal norm elsewhere in the world," tweeted @itanomaly.
Elders and Age in Korea
Deference towards elders, even those only one or two years older, is ingrained from an early age. Koreans often address their friends as juniors and seniors even if they are just a few months younger or older. This custom is rooted in Confucianism.
Since ancient times, Korean placed importance on the custom of respecting elders. For example, young boys and girls are expected to address their elders respectfully; smoking and drinking are not allowed in front of elders unless you have to drink. When drinking, one should never drink with one's back towards the elders; when dining, rice and dishes should first be served first to seniors. When guests come, tables and banquets should be arranged separately for elder guests. Delicacies should be put in front of the elders. Juniors should not take their delicacies before the seniors move their chopsticks. When a young person encounters a senior person, whether they are acquainted or not, the younger person is expected to offer a respectful greeting. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, kepu.net.cn ~]
Korean age is one year older than Western age. In Korea and other Asian countries age is determined from the moment of conception not from the moment of birth. The hour and year of birth are often are more important in the scheme of things than the date of birth.
Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “Koreans calculate their ages by saying that a person is in the first year at birth. Therefore, a newborn girl is already said to be "one," though what is really meant is that she is in her first year. And she becomes "two" not on her next birthday but on the very next New Year's Day, so that a child born in December (being "one") can actually turn "two" the next month. A better way to express it is by thinking of how many years the person has "known." A person born in the year 2000 has known that year as "one" and 2001 as "two," regardless of the time elapsed since conception or birth. It comes down to recognizing that when a Korean states his or her age in years, it is at least one year more than it would be in the West. Though Koreans traditionally shared the experience of becoming a year older at the same time on New Year's, modern Korean families regularly celebrate birthdays in the Western style with parties and dinners and congratulatory exchanges of gifts. There is even a Korean version of the song "Happy Birthday." [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]
Impolite, Rude and Offensive Behavior in Korea
Blowing your nose in public in considered highly offensive in Korea. If you have the sniffles or are stuffed up, it is best to excuse yourself and blow your nose in a rest room. Yawning loudly and chewing gun in public are also considered rude. It is considered bad manners in Korea to lift rice bowls, like Chinese often do, to eat, or smoke in front of the elderly.
Public displays of affection between members of the opposite sex — such as kissing, hugging and holding hands — are considered rude, while holding hands and hugging among members of the same sex is perfectly acceptable.
Koreans don't like it when Westerners point at people; kiss in public; wear strong colognes or perfumes; putting their feet or sit on desks; stand with their arms folded in front of them or hands in their pockets; don’t stand up when a superior enters the room; boast and offer their opinions; want immediate answers; and show a lack of patience. Koreans sometimes don't like it when Westerners are loud and physical even though Koreans can be loud and physical themselves. [Source: “Ugly Koreans Ugly Americans” by Min Byoung-chul, 1993]
Min Byoung-chul, a professor at Konkuk University, wrote "Ugly Koreans, Ugly Americans," and co-wrote "Ugly Japanese, Ugly Americans" and "Ugly Chinese, Ugly Americans," which examines the differences between the customs and habits of Americans and those of Koreans. Chinese and Japanese. He told the Los Angeles Times that Koreans are taken baffled by the behavior of Americans and other Westerners. Why do many stick their hands in their pockets while talking, blast their car radios or refuse to stand when a boss approaches? they ask. Koreans consider direct eye contact with a superior disrespectful, whereas Americans view it as a form of sincerity.
Behavior That Westerners Sometimes Find Annoying with Koreans
When groups of Koreans walk down a sidewalk or a narrow back streets they sometimes take up the whole space and don't walk to one side or move out of the way as quickly as Westerners expect them to. Koreans also push and shove a lot. Koreans do not customarily apologize for bumping into someone or hold open a door for a person in a crowd. Rarely will they even acknowledge strangers in public. [Source: “Ugly Koreans Ugly Americans” by Min Byoung-chul, 1993]
Korean men hack and spit a lot — or at least they used. They are not as bad as the Chinese, who sometimes spit in restaurants and homes — or at least they used to. Koreans spit all over the sidewalks and sometimes on the floors of public baths. Many men smoke and have a hacking cough so one of the first thing they do when they leave their houses is clear phlegm from their throats and spit.
Koreans often stare at and shout various things at foreigners — or at least they used to, and sometimes still do in the countryside. Koreans often insist the Korean way of doing things is the best way and that Korea is unique and special. They also like to point out the faults of the United States: its high crime rate, gun laws, nuclear weapons policies, etc.
People sometimes walk around on the street in their pajamas, but no so much anymore and not as much as in China. Japanese are taken aback by the way that South Koreans talk loudly on their cell phones in trains and buses.
When riding on a bus or subway, some Westerners are surprised when a Korean pulls on their shirt or clothing. This is merely a common way of letting you know that there is an empty seat available. Foreigners are often shocked when they find an old person stroking their hair of clothing. No harm is meant by this. Elderly people sometime show their affection and warmth towards young people by doing this.
Among Koreans body contact is an acceptable form of communication. It is not unusual for elderly Korean men to run the thigh of the person they are talking as a way to express their friendliness. Middle-aged women sometimes affectionately pick up and hug toddlers of strangers they encounter in public places. [Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, May 1, 2010]
Gestures and Smiling in Korea
Some Koreans point with their middle finger without realizing that it has a vulgar meaning in the West. Conversely, a thumb placed between the middle and index fingers (the "nose stealing" gesture) is on obscene gesture in Korea. A raised little finger means — or used to mean among some people — a woman.
It is rude to point or gesture to someone to "come here" with your finger. Koreans sometimes gesture to children, taxis or waiters to "come here" by holding their palm down and shaking their hand up and down, but it is considered very rude to do this to an older person. The most polite way to attract someone's attention is make eye contact and bow slightly.
The Western "okay" hand signal means money in Japan and Korea. If someone asks a Korean guy what he is doing tonight and he sticks out his pinkie finger it means he going to be with a girl. Women regard this gesture as crude.
Koreans are very adept at twirling pens in different ways with their fingers. This a skill they learn when they were students and often do it when they are studying, or sitting quietly at a desk, concentrating.
Koreans don't smile or exchange greeting with strangers. Smiling or being friendly to someone you don't know well is considered rude and too familiar. If three people meet on street and two of them know each other they will often converse without introducing the third person.
Women Customs and Smoking in Korea
Many Korean women cover their mouthes when they laugh. Traditionally, a woman that laughed too loud or openly was considered uncouth and ill bred.
It is considered inappropriate for Korean women to smoke. Women generally try to hide their smoking from men, although these days more and more women are smoking openly, especially in Seoul, where you often see coffee shops filled with women in their 20s lighting up.
Many Korean men look upon women smokers with disgust and consider smoking a very unladylike thing to do. Men will scold them and other women will sneer. Over the past decade of so smoking and drinking has increased dramatically among women. It is still largely done privately or discretely.
Adult women who smoke: 5.7 percent; Adult men who smoke: 53.3 percent [Source: WHO Report on the Global Tobacco Epidemic (2008) Wikipedia ]
Donald N. Clark wrote: “Rules change for women who are past childbearing age. A woman above the age of fifty whose children are grown is excused from many of the rules. She is still not free to associate with unrelated men, but she may go out in public as she pleases and engage in behavior that would be forbidden to a younger woman. She may smoke tobacco and drink alcohol. She can join groups and associations and express herself without anyone else's permission. Women with a little extra money often join kye, revolving credit associations, playing the stock market and financing small businesses. Women of all classes enjoy outings with their women's associations, picnicking and entertaining each other on spirited outings. On the highway one has only to follow a bus full of slightly inebriated elderly women singing and dancing in the aisle while the vehicle rocks from side to side to understand that older women do not have to obey the same rules as younger women. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]
Social Customs in Korea
Koreans consider it rude to look someone directly in the eye, cross your arms or legs, or have your hands in their pocket when you are speaking to them. Koreans usually focus their eyes on the lower neck of the person they are talking to and try to avoid staring.
Koreans often call each other after 10:00pm because than is when they are most likely to catch people home or not engaged in something else. Koreans often make invitations at the last minute and expect you to come. They are not big on giving advanced warning. Koreans are often late and sometimes they don't show up at all. Once your are out is sometimes difficult to drag yourself away.
Koreans are expected to arrive exactly on time for a party or a dinner engagement. Westerners are sometimes caught unprepared with Korean guests at their door or are chided for being late. It is also considered rude to not be patient and wait even when someone is really late.
When offering a book or paper to someone older than you, you should show respect by using two hands to present the object. On a crowded subway or bus, you should give up your seat to an elderly person. Koreans tend to walk to the left on stairs and sidewalks.
Confusion Over Yes and No
Koreans consider it rude to say "no" directly. They often say something like "maybe," "I am busy," or even "yes" when they really mean "no," or convey a no answer in way that foreigners don't understand. This behavior sometimes causes confusion with Westerners who like a "yes" or "no" answer, and who tend to believe there is a possibility of a "yes" unless they are told "no" straight out. Koreans consider it rude, kind of mean and too direct to say "no."
A typical confused situation goes something like this. A Westerner takes his car to a Korean mechanic to have it fixed. He asks will it be ready tomorrow. The mechanic says "yes" because he doesn't want to be rude and say no. The Westerners shows up the next and is angry because his car isn't ready. The mechanic doesn't understand why he is angry: the day before he was only trying to be polite and telling the Westerner what he wanted to hear. The Westerner should have asked, "When will my car be ready?"
The solution to this problem is to stay away from yes and no questions. Koreans considered it rude to ask for something and readily accept something that is offered to them. For this reason they will usually polity refuse something before finally accepting it or will not taking no for an answer when they offer something.
Gift Giving in Korea
Gifts are routinely brought to weddings, funerals, parties and even casual visits. If you visit someone's house make sure to take along a small gift as an expression of appreciation. Fruit, chocolates, handkerchiefs, or alcohol or common gifts (avoid anything in denominations of four, which are associated with death and funerals). Guests to housewarming parties often bring a box of detergent or rolls of toilet paper.
The recipient of a gift should make sure to shower the giftgiver with thanks, smiles and compliments. Gifts of money are usually placed in special envelops and it is customary to give clean, crisp bills. The envelope often says "Congratulations" or "Best Wishes." When receiving a gift don't open it immediately unless requested to do so. In Korea, gifts are meant to be opened in private.
Most people give the equivalent of between US$50 and US$200 won for a wedding. According to one survey in the 2000s people in their forties spent an average of US$700 a year in gifts, compared to US$400 for people in the 30s and US$250 for people in their twenties.
There is a certain protocol that determines what kind of gifts should be brought and how much money should be spent depending on the occasion, the gift-giver's wealth and his or her closeness and relationship to the gift-receiver. Koreans are very good at keeping track of who gives gifts to whom and making sure that they reciprocate any act at an appropriate level.
In business and politics, there is a fuzzy line between gift giving and corruption. Sometimes wedding and funerals gifts are used as bribes. The issue become even more complicated when factoring in the fact that refusing a gift is considered very rude.
Partying, Singing and Dancing Customs
Koreans like to party in one big group rather than breaking up in small groups and circulating like Westerners do at a cocktail party (when they do they tend to divide into separate groups of men and women). Taking turns singing is a popular activity, with one person playing the role of "emcee" and calling on the others to participate one by one. Guest often accompany the singing with hand clapping. If you attend a party like this it is a good idea to have a song ready. Groups of students often sit around in a big circle.
A typical night out with a group of Korean involves hopping from one place to another: for example from a coffee shop to a restaurant to a bar to a singing room. Between each stop one or two members might excuse themselves and go home. A different individual usually pays at each stop and a decision is made by the groups when it is time to go home.
Korean men party as hard as they work. They like to hit a three or four bars and end the evening at a pojangmacha, a bar inside an orange tent which seats about eight people that you see everywhere in the big cities.
Discos are popular in South Korea. Men and women usually don't dance as couples, they dance as a group in a circle, with individuals occasionally jumping in the middle of the circle and doing some sort of show-off dance. When a slow song comes the dance floor empties and a few couples appear to do a slow bruce ("blues") dance. Sometimes men slow dance together.
Koreans love to sing. They sing in karaokes and singing rooms, bring portable karaokes to parks and beaches, ask guests to "sing-a-song" at parties, and watch ssirrum wrestlers and actors sing karaoke songs on television. It is not usual for Koreans to "sing-a-song" as a way of introducing themselves to strangers. Guests at parties and on bus trips are often asked to sing a song.
Home Customs: Taking Off You Shoes and Sitting on the Floor
According to Korean custom, people are supposed to take off their shoes when entering a house. The shoes are taken off at the threshold (entrance area) inside the house and one has be careful not to step on the threshold with their barefeet or socks (Koreans step out of the heels of both shoes first and then step into house without stepping on the threshold). Often Koreans step into slippers for walking around in the house. The custom was developed to keep the floors in the house clean. Some men take their shoes off and on so much they walk around on the streets, stepping on the back part of their shoes. Don’t step on the threshold. That is considered a sign of bad luck and death.
Koreans spend a lot of time sitting on the floor of their homes. The preference for sitting on the floor goes hand in hand with not wearing shoes in the house. Japanese and Koreans don't want to sit on a floor dirtied by people's shoes. If you sit in a chair it doesn't make as much difference if the floor has a little dirt.
Most Korean dwellings have heated ondol floors. Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea” Koreans “are so fond of the system that even in modern apartments they build copper pipes in the floors to carry warm water and achieve the same effect. The ondol heating system is one reason why Koreans sit on the floor, sleep on the floor, and work and eat at low tables instead of raised tables with chairs. At night, the few pieces of furniture are pushed to the side and pads and quilts are brought from the closet and unrolled for sleeping, again on the warm floor. The floor in a Korean house therefore is not really a "floor" at all but a special living surface that is constantly being cleaned and polished. Stepping on this surface with shoes on would be like stepping on the sofa or bed with shoes on in an American house. This is why Koreans always leave their shoes outside the room door or underneath the little porch, if there is one. In fact, it feels so unnatural to enter someone's living space with shoes on that even in modern or "Western-style" homes and apartments there is a little entryway designed for taking shoes off and putting them on.
“even in modern apartments they build copper pipes in the floors to carry warm water and achieve the same effect.... At night, the few pieces of furniture are pushed to the side and pads and quilts are brought from the closet and unrolled for sleeping, again on the warm floor. The floor in a Korean house therefore is not really a "floor" at all but a special living surface that is constantly being cleaned and polished. Stepping on this surface with shoes on would be like stepping on the sofa or bed with shoes on in an American house. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]
If you go the bathroom at some homes, you put on a pair of plastic slippers in the bathroom and then change back into the original slipper when you step out of the bathroom. Korean children put their shoes into special boxes and change into slippers when they arrive at school. They wear a third set of footwear in the bathrooms, a fourth set in gym class, and change back into the street shoes when they go home. Generally it is okay to wear shoes in Western-style hotels but not some traditional inns. Shoes are alright in restaurants with tables. In restaurants where people sit on the floor shoes must be removed.
Koreans spend a lot of time sitting on the floor, and if given the choice some would rather lie down on a hard floor than relax on a bed or a comfortable chair. The Japanese also spend a lot of time on the floor and take their shoes off in the house while the Chinese sit on chairs and leave their shoes on. Chairs were introduced to China about a thousand years ago by the Mongols, who never conquered Japan or Korean. This is believed to be the reason why the use chairs and Koreans and Japanese don't.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.
Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.
Updated in July 2021