There are too many traditional customs to count that modern-day Korean people continue to practice! Mainly, these are etiquette-oriented and are useful to know if you plan to spend time with your Korean colleagues or with older Korean people. Here are some of the most useful tips for Korean etiquette:
1. When eating with a group, it is bad manners to let someone’s glass empty. When you notice someone’s water, beer, soju, or any beverage is running low, ask if they would like a refill.
2. When pouring for an elder, pour with your right hand and use your left hand to hold your right arm as a show of respect.
3. If an elder, including a Korean superior, wants to drink with you, turn away as you sip your drink.
4. Modify your actions if you are motioning to someone to approach with a hand gesture as the way we normally do it in the West (with your palm facing up and your fingers gesturing “come here”) is impolite. In Korea, that is how one gestures to the equivalent of a dog. Koreans gesture with the palm of their hand facing down and their fingers gesturing in a downward position (in Western terms, this is similar to the “take it away” hand gesture).
5. All Koreans call their older acquaintances by familial names: older brother (“opa”), older sister (“auney”) and so on. For their bosses and coworkers, they use titles instead of calling them just by name. For example, if you are a teacher, your Korean coworkers will always call you “_______ teacher” (your name and then your title). Older men who you don’t know are called “adjushi” and older women are called “adjuma”.
6. When you are reaching for something, for example, if a clerk is giving you change, you should reach with one hand supporting the other (similar to pouring drinks).
7. Do not write someone’s name in red. That means he or she will die.
8. The number 4 is bad luck in Korea, just like the number 13 in the West. Usually, instead of the number four in elevators and other areas, Koreans use the letter F.
9. Like in many Asian countries, cats are considered bad animals – thieves, to be precise! Many Koreans don’t like, or are afraid of, cats for this reason.
10. Bowing is a common greeting or way of saying thank you. You’ll get so used to bowing in Seoul that you’ll do it accidentally for months when you go back home.
11. Attempt to understand Confucianism.
- This ancient philosophical system is alive and well in modern day Korea and it will be all around you. One of the most predominant aspects of it is the idea that if you haven’t been introduced then there is no reason for formalities. This accounts for most of the pushing in the subway (if Koreans want to get around you they just push you aside rather than say “excuse me”).
- The second is the hierarchy system in the work place. It places the boss well above his/her employees and may seem much more extreme in Korea than in other Western countries. This can make work meetings quite interesting. Just know that in Korea you should never, never tell a Korean superior when they have made a mistake; and conversely, do not expect your Korean employees to tell you if you have made an error or give you any negative feedback or even constructive criticism. While these things may seem strange, or even counterproductive, it is not meant to be. Approaching Confucianism and its ideology with an open mind will do you a great service throughout your stay in Korea.
There are many more customs that you’ll learn or become aware of as you expand your knowledge of Korean culture, but these are the main ones you should be aware of during your first months in the city.