It is essential for foreign residents to be aware of and learn basic etiquette in the new country they are living in. Doing so will further help them engage in the new customs, culture, traditions, and manners they must observe in order to help their everyday lives. In Korea, one of the most homogenous countries in the world has unique etiquettes that differ from some cultures across the globe. Get to know 12 things foreign residents should avoid to not be perceived as rude in Korea.
Remember, the only time a person can start eating is when the elders start taking their utensils and begin eating their meals first. Since the age hierarchy is a key part of their culture, preceding the elders when dining is considered rude behavior. But even when dining with colleagues or acquaintances, wait till you see everyone is ready to dig in before you start taking the first bite.
Another harsh act to avoid is leaving the table during meals or when members are not yet finished eating. In Korean culture, dining together is a very communal event, but if you seriously need to leave, the most polite way is to apologize and explain the reason to the eldest person in the group.
The proper way of shaking hands in South Korea is using both hands or by placing the left hand on the right wrist as support and slightly bowing the head for a more polite gesture. Shaking hands using just one hand is considered impolite and should be avoided.
In giving or accepting an item, using both hands is the best way. For foreign residents that are not used to using both hands, another way they can do this is by placing the left hand on the inside of the right wrist; try to always do transactions using the right hand. This is the same mannerism one should apply when giving or receiving a business card or when pouring or receiving a drink. Since drinking is an essential part of the Korean culture, remember that if a Korean poured a drink in your glass, return the favor by pouring them an alcoholic drink—using two hands.
One of the best ways to immerse oneself in Korean culture to understand and practice their etiquette is by accepting their invitation on outings, meetings, get-togethers, and karaoke nights. Saying no to party invites is a big no-no in their culture.
Expats can take advantage of this good opportunity to go out with Koreans, learn their social manners, go to their homes and other parts of the city, establish relationships, all while having fun. However, you may really just not want to go for your own personal reasons. It’s always best to say, “I’ll try to make it” rather than directly rejecting them to their face.
One of the most extremely offensive actions one can do in Korea is by writing someone’s name using a red pen, for it means the person has already deceased. And if the person is not yet dead, the one who wrote the name using red ink wishes the person to die. So, never-ever write Korean names in red ink to avoid receiving negative reactions.
This may be accepted in some other countries, but sitting on reserved seats for the elderly, the handicapped, or the pregnant in public transportation is considered rude even if the seats are vacant. So to avoid getting scolded by an ahjumma or ahjussi, or women or men of your parent’s generation, the best thing to do is to deliberately identify the seats through the photos which depict the profiles of the three groups mentioned above or read the sign 노약자석, meaning “seating reserved for the handicapped, the elderly, and pregnant women.” Of course, it is not uncommon to see Koreans themselves sitting in those seats. Don’t follow their example. Trust me, the other passengers are scolding them with their minds.
During mealtime, never stick chopsticks in the rice bowl. The reason for this is that in Asian funerals for ancestor rituals, people normally stick incense sticks upright in a bowl of sand because it is thought to be food for their spirits. Save that ritual for the deceased, but do not do this at the dining table. So be aware of where you place your chopsticks, it is better to lay them on the table.
In addition to this, never pierce the food using your chopsticks, it is better to use a fork if you need some assistance. It is also considered rude to use your fingers to pick up food, no matter how small or big the piece is, you need to use your chopsticks.
Aside from handing or accepting a drink from Koreans using two hands, another thing to consider while drinking is to avoid eye contact with the elderly to avoid disrespecting them. Thus, express one’s gratitude by bowing and turning your head to the side when drinking in front of older and high-ranking colleagues.
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If you’re one of the younger, newcomers to the group, fill up any empty shot glasses you see (remember to use two hands). But never fill your own, and don’t fill half-empty shot glasses. When drinking, it is considered rude to reject a drink, it is better to receive it and take a sip. People will see your half-empty glass and think, “Ah, he’s slowing down.”
Karaoke rooms, known as Noraebangs, are a popular form of entertainment in South Korea and a fun night out with family, relatives, friends, and colleagues. Here, foreign residents must take note of the most basic rule: never hog the karaoke machine. Just select one and let others have their turn. If you’re on the opposite end of that stick, hiding in the corner and refusing to sing, just let loose and have fun. Koreans appreciate the efforts to enhance the group dynamic.
In South Korea, giving or exchanging business cards is a norm. Don’t forget to receive a business card with two hands. But it is considered rude to immediately put it away in your pocket or wallet upon receiving the card. The receiver can show gratitude and respect by reading the business card front and back, and even placing it on the table in front of them for at least 5 seconds. This can help foreign residents or expats in practicing proper business etiquette.
When visiting other people’s houses, leave your shoes by the shoe rack at the door, and simply wear your socks indoors. This is because Koreans traditionally slept and ate on the floor, hence, it was important to keep the floors clean. Now, Koreans have beds and dining tables but the clean floor is still strongly held onto till today.
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In South Korean culture, it is not a good idea to address locals by their first name, unless a person is knowledgeable of their social hierarchy, or is invited to do so. The age hierarchy and the level of intimacy between the speakers are two utmost important factors when addressing Koreans. So, a safe and polite way before calling them by their name is to ask how they want to be called.
Moreover, whether a foreign resident is hailing a taxi or just simply getting the attention of Koreans, avoid calling them over with palms facing up for it is considered rude. According to some interviews, the reason behind this is it is the way animals, such as dogs are called over.
These are just 12 of the many Korean etiquettes a foreign resident must know. Watch and observe yourself as you interact with local South Koreans when meeting, greeting and, dining with them, initiating physical contact with them, rejecting their invites, and writing their name using the proper ink. You will surely make a great impression, helping you start better relationships now and in the years to come.