You’ve got countless reasons to fall in love with South Korea, the land of dramatic fall foliage, delicious samgyeopsal, and massive K-Pop phenomenon. But before your excitement takes you too far, know that South Korea has a deep respect for their culture. Locals will appreciate your effort as a traveler to learn and value Korean culture, from customs and basic Korean etiquette to unspoken rules and Korean insults to avoid.
Here are the do’s and don’ts when you visit South Korea:
When greeting people, men take a bow with a handshake afterwards. While doing this, you can support your right forearm with your left hand to show respect. Women would slightly nod but will not shake hands with western men. However, western women may give their hand to a Korean man. You may also bow when departing.
When addressing someone younger or of lower status, saying “annyeong with a slight bow is enough. If you and the other person are in the same status or age, “annyeong haseyo” can start the conversation. Lower your eyes and make a slight bow. “Annyeong hashimnika” is appropriate when interacting with people of higher status.
You must call or address Koreans using their professional titles. Koreans will let them know if you can call them by their given names. Americans can use Mr., Mrs., Miss and their family name when addressing Koreans. A high-ranking person or superior must not be addressed in this manner though.
Remember that Korean names are the opposite of Western names: the family name comes first and is followed by the two-part given name. The first of these names is common to family members in the same generation while the second is the individual’s given name.
Please avoid touching, patting, and back-slapping Koreans. They regard these gestures as a personal violation, especially if you are not a relative or a close friend. If you are used to pointing with your index finger, you may want to refrain from doing that because it is considered offensive.
When sitting, avoid crossing your legs or stretching them out in front of you. Do not place your feet on a desk or chair. Use your right hand when passing or receiving an object and or with two hands if possible.
Koreans rarely speak on public transport and if they do, it’s usually hushed or caused by some teenagers. When it comes to seats, Koreans prioritize the disabled, pregnant women, or the elderly. Their seats are always left unoccupied.
Offer to pour a drink for someone else instead of pouring a drink for yourself. It is a common gesture to fill each other’s cup and refusing such may deem as an insult. When joining a dinner, let your host seat you. The seat looking at the front door is considered the seat of honor. Do not refuse the host’s invitation to go drinking after dinner.
Koreans avoid talking a lot during dinner, and this silence is appreciated by everyone. Use your right hand if you are passing or receiving food or drink, and let your left hand support your forearm or wrist. The bill is on the person who invited guests for the meal. When only two people are eating, it is the younger person who pays for the older person.
Use your two hands when giving or receiving a gift. Do not open the gift in the presence of the giver. You may reciprocate the gesture by giving a gift of similar value. You can use bright colors like yellow and red or green stripes for your wrapping paper. When you’re invited to someone’s home, bring a small gift for the host like candy, cakes, cookies, or fruit.
Remember these tips and apply them when you visit South Korea. We’re pretty sure that Koreans will appreciate your kind gesture.
*Featured photo from Republic of Korea on Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)