Back when we were elementary school students, our teachers always encouraged us to make mistakes. After all, mistakes are how we learn, right? And who is to say that a duck can’t be purple?
Even though we aren’t little kids anymore, it’s still okay to make mistakes. However, now that we’re a little older and wiser, it’s better if we can avoid them. This goes doubly for embarrassing cultural mistakes. When it comes to Korean etiquette, it’s best to know what to do in advance!
Korea has certain customs, traditions, and rules of etiquette that have developed over the years, and many of them are different than what occurs in most other countries. While Koreans are generally accepting of any cultural faux pas that visitors make, it’s much better to be informed so you can make the best impression possible. Not only will you honor the group, but you’ll also increase your chances of being invited out again.
This is especially valuable if you’re studying Korean. Many expats and visitors who are strong speakers of the language were able to learn Korean fast by spending lots of time with Koreans. Below, we’ll outline 10 rules to abide by that are sure get you in with the natives!
Note: If you can’t read Hangeul (Korean alphabet) yet, it’s worth the hour it takes to learn it. You can download a free guide for learning Hangeul here, and be reading the characters before you sit down for your next meal!
Let’s take a look at the top 10 mistakes people make when it comes to Korean etiquette. Below, we’ll give advice for what you should do so you can avoid these blunders.
Korean Etiquette #1: Hand Shakes
Koreans follow a social hierarchy that is largely based on age. Since you can’t always know a person’s age upon first meet, it’s better to err on the side of caution. One way to do this is with the handshake. Koreans differentiate between using two hands for a handshake vs. one hand. One hand can be used by someone of higher rank to someone of lower rank, but not vice versa! It’s considered rude. Though this is what we may be used to in the West, this is one mistake to avoid in Korea.
What to do: To be on the safe side, it’s best to show your manners by shaking a person’s hand with two hands the first time you meet him or her. The same applies for receiving something that someone is giving you. If you want to show that you learn Korean customs fast, make sure that you accept items with both hands. That simple act will go a long way!
Korean Etiquette #2: Proper Pouring
In Korea, drinking is often a part of the culture and you should never pour your own alcohol. You’ll be pouring someone else’s alcohol, and they’ll return the favor to you. It’s also important not to use just one hand when you pour for someone else
What to do: Just as you should use two hands for a handshake, make sure that you use two hands for pouring someone’s alcohol. If you become close with the other person over time or they are lower in the hierarchy than you, then you can use one hand. If you’re not sure, best to play it safe. Learn and apply this Korean etiquette rule as soon as possible!
Photo Credit: Graham Hills
Korean Etiquette #3: Red Writing
It’s bad luck to write someone’s name in red ink. Be conscious of the colors that you are using, some people will be very superstitious. Back in the day, deceased people’s names were written in red ink in family registers and funeral banners. Evil spirits hate red ink, so it seemed like a good plan.
What to do: If you want to demonstrate that you can learn Korean etiquette, stick to the other six colors of the rainbow when writing names.
Korean Etiquette #4: Name Calling
The famous author Dale Carnegie once said “Remember that a man’s name is to him the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” While that may hold true in most cultures, it certainly does not in Korea! It’s a good idea to learn Korean names of the people you are meeting and practice saying them correctly. However, the way you address them is based on the social hierarchy and you shouldn’t call people by their first names until you are well versed in the culture and know it’s appropriate to do so.
What to do: The safest way to handle this one is to ask that person how he or she would like to be called. Often times that person will give you a version of his/her Korean name or his/her English name, allowing you to comfortably sidestep the complex name and title rules that Koreans live by.
Korean Etiquette #5: Pregnant, Elderly, Handicapped Seating
The mass transportation in Korea is some of the best in the world. People from all different walks of life use it, including pregnant women, handicapped people, and the elderly. In order to accommodate them, there are special seats exclusively for these people on the buses and subways. It’s important to be aware of them and not take the seats just because they are empty.
What to do: On the buses, you can sit in those seats even if you don’t fit those profiles. However, you should get up and offer your seat if you see someone who does. On the subways, most people usually don’t sit in the elderly and handicapped seating sections. You can identify the seats by looking for pictures directly above the seating area depicting the profiles of the three groups.
If you are trying to learn Korean, you can add this helpful word to your vocabulary flash cards:
노약자석 = seating reserved for the handicapped, the elderly, and pregnant women.
Korean Etiquette #6: Nasal Knowledge
For those learning Korean, a runny nose is known as 콧물 (nasal mucus). In many countries, one of the most annoying noises is to hear someone constantly sniffling and inhaling through a runny nose. Think back to your school days when there was that one classmate who you wanted to give a box of Kleenex to in order to soothe your own ears! For Koreans, that sniffling noise is not nearly as offensive or annoying. However, the act of blowing your nose is quite unpleasant for Koreans to hear. This is especially true at the dinner table!
What to do: If you feel like you need to clear out your sinuses, best to excuse yourself and head to the restroom.
Korean Etiquette #7: Elder Eating
Want to make a good impression at the dinner table? Before you pick up your 젓가락 (chopsticks), take a look at your eating companions. Unless you’re the oldest person at the table, it’s good manners to wait before eating. Korean culture values letting the oldest people at the table eat first so don’t just pick up your utensils and start to chow down!
What to do: If you’re not sure of the other people’s age relative to yours, its best to wait and let the others get started first. Likely your host or the dinner organizer will give you the green light to start chowing down, but better be safe than sorry. Your dining comrades will be impressed with your efforts to learn Korean manners.
Korean Etiquette #8: Thank You
If you want to learn Korean, the first word you should learn is 고맙습니다 (thank you). Most Koreans don’t expect visitors and expats to learn Korean, but a little effort will go a long way! Once you know the Korean alphabet (Hangeul), you should be able to pick up the basics quite quickly. Many foreigners come to Korea without knowing any Korean, and this isn’t necessarily a mistake but you can make a really good impression by doing your research.
What to do: Korean uses different forms of words based on social hierarchies and rank, so it’s best to lean towards being more polite. This can usually be accomplished with the ending “-세요” (i.e. 주세요.)
Korean Etiquette #9: ‘Mr. and Mrs.’ Korean
If you’re meeting a Korean male that is older than you, he may introduce himself using “Mr.” plus his family name. Koreans are very conscious of using the proper title based on rank, so some men don’t want to be called by their first names. If he says his name is Mr. Kim, then that is fine to call him that. However, be aware when he introduces you to his wife that she may likely not be Mrs. Kim! No, it’s probably not from a messy divorce. When Koreans marry, the children take the father’s family name, but the wife keeps her family name.
What to do: Stick to the name calling rules we outlined above and you’ll be all set. Just ask your Korean colleagues how they’d like to be referred to!
Korean Etiquette #10: Missed Opportunities
If you’re in Korea, make sure you don’t miss out on opportunities to go out with Koreans! Korean outings, business meetings, and friendly get-togethers are invaluable. Not only will it put you in the good books with your Korean friends or colleagues, but you’ll learn all about Korean culture and Korean etiquette (plus have a lot of fun)!
What to do: If you’re invited out for an event, make sure you RSVP “yes!” If you rely only on guidebooks, Internet resources, and other expats to experience Korea, you will only see one particular side of the culture. By going out with Koreans, you can gain a whole new perspective of what the country and social interactions are like. It’s a great opportunity to learn Korean social etiquette, go to new parts of the city, and make great friends.
Korean Etiquette #11: Business Card Handling
When you exchange business cards at a meeting, your first instinct may be to put it in your pocket or to write some notes on it. Don’t do it! A Korean’s business card is a representation of that person, so make sure you pay it the proper respect.
What to do: When you first receive the card, take it with two hands. Look at it for a short time (5 – 15 seconds) to read it over and show that you are putting effort into reading the card. Put the card in front of you if you are sitting down, and don’t make any marks on the card in front of that person. This is one very important part of proper business etiquette.
Getting these rules down will help you adapt to life in Korea which can help if you’re dealing with culture shock from other little things here.
What Korean etiquette do you think is most important when visiting Korea? We’d love to hear from you, so feel free to leave a comment below!