Dos and Don’ts When Moving to South Korea

South Korea is a country with a culture much different than the western culture. They have certain traditions, customs, rules of behavior and cultural norms that, if you were planning on moving there anytime soon, you should probably read before you take the next step. In a couple of paragraphs, here is what you should and shouldn’t do when in South Korea.

South Korea: Dos and Don’ts

1. Don’t Gesture With Your Palm Facing Up

Whether you are calling a stranger on the street or your Korean friend, there is a wrong way to do so, and pay attention, because this is definitely something you should get right. If your palm is up while you are asking someone to come over, you may insult them, because that is considered rude, because that is exactly how you call animals to come over (dogs, cats, etc.) Therefore, if you do not wish to offend someone in your new country of choice, just flip your palm over and make sure that it is facing down, and then bend your fingers the same you would if your palm was facing up.

2. Don’t Take The First Seat

Seriously, do not jump for the first empty seat; whether you are in a restaurant or on the bus, there is a certain hierarchy that you have to respect. Elderly people are much respected in South Korea; therefore, they must take the first available seats. In the restaurants, the oldest person starts the dining process, and they usually take the seat of honor, which is the one looking at the front door. However, if they offer you the honorable seat, you should probably politely refuse in the beginning and protest a little before accepting the honor (it is the same thing when accepting gifts). On the bus, the elderly people also must be respected. They also take the first seats and can practically do anything they want. In fact, those special seats in the first section of the bus are probably always going to be taken by elderly people, or pregnant women or handicapped people or children, so try to stick to those seats that are more towards the end of the bus just to be safe. Always give your seat to the abovementioned people if they happen to enter a full bus and have nowhere to sit, it is the polite thing to do, and people will appreciate you doing so.

3. Don’t Leave Plenty Of Food On Your Plate

People in South Korea usually don’t leave anything on their plate, which is a sign of good table manners and a compliment for the chef. The solution to this is simply having this rule in mind and always pouring the amount you are sure you will eat, do not let your “hungry eyes” lead you into filling your plate all the way. If you still have some food on the plate and are too full, you can put your chopsticks on the table or put them on the chopstick rest and in that way notify people that you’ve had plenty to eat. Speaking of chopsticks, after you’re done, never stick your chopsticks in the rice bowl sticking up because that is what people do when offering food to the deceased. Also, do not point with a chopstick, that’s not considered good manners and is looked down on.

4. Don’t Pick Up A Drink With One Hand And Always Pour Others

Yes, that is considered bad manners as well. You should pick up drinks with both hands. And while we’re at it, you should probably pour drinks for everyone but yourself. People will always refill your drink and show their respect in that way, so it is only polite for you to pour drinks to other people, and if you refuse to do so you will appear very rude in their eyes. A piece of advice, whenever you empty your glass you will most likely get a refill, if at a certain point you have had enough and don’t want your glass to be refilled, just leave some of your drink in it and your problem is solved.

5. Don’t Show Up Without Calling Previously

Do not show up unexpected; whether it’s a house visit to a friend or a business meeting, you should always call in advance (3-4 weeks for business meetings). It is the polite thing to do, plus it gives that person time to rearrange their schedule according to your meeting, it is actually pretty efficient!

6. Don’t Forget To Bring A Gift

In South Korea, gift giving is a big part of their culture, so the main things you should know about that are: Always show up with a little gift such as a bottle of wine, chocolate, fruit or flowers, it is polite and respectful; however, do not bring something too expensive or luxurious because that may be awkward for the person receiving the gift; when offered one, politely refuse it from one to three times (do not exaggerate), and then accept it, but not accepting the gift at all is considered insulting. If you are giving a larger number of gifts, do not bring for, because that is considered the bad number, but the seven is a lucky number.

A couple of more things:

  • Let others introduce you, don’t do it yourself, and ask the other person how they would like for you to address them.
  • Blowing your nose in public is considered inappropriate.
  • When accepting a business card examine it carefully and treat it with respect, also always carry yours with you.
  • In business meetings a low deep bow roughly indicates that the meeting was fruitful, and the quick, short bow means the opposite.
  • First business meetings may not actually involve a lot of business talk; in fact, they are mostly for the genuine feel of whether they consider you trustworthy or not, so come with a smile and an open attitude.
  • Remove your footwear when entering a home (even some restaurants will expect you to enter wearing socks or with bare feet).