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There are some important things you need to know about Korean etiquette, and we’re going to tell you all about them!
South 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.
Below are the Korean etiquette rules you need to know.
We’ve included a FREE PDF version of this lesson that you can take with you on the go. Check it out below:
The things you’ll learn below are important if you live or plan to travel to South Korea. You won’t be surprised, and you’ll make a great impression.
This also helps with studying Korean. You’ll notice a lot of Korean culture subtleties built right into the language.
Let’s take a look at the top 11 mistakes people make when it comes to etiquette in South Korea. Below, we’ll give advice for what you should do so you can avoid these blunders.
1. Use two hands for handshakes
Koreans follow a social hierarchy that is largely based on age. Note that Korean age is different than international 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 way you shake hands. Koreans differentiate between using two hands for a shaking hands 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, you may want to adjust the way you shake hands in South Korea. You may also notice that some Koreans will bow slightly when shaking hands. This is usually done to someone older or of higher rank.
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. Make sure that you accept items with both hands. You can also receive it with your right hand if you hold your right wrist with your left hand. That simple act will go a long way.
Likewise, if someone bows when shaking your hand, it’s polite to bow in return. It’s definitely safe to bow to someone who is older or of higher rank to you, regardless of whether they offer the gesture first.
2. Pour alcoholic drinks properly
In South Korea, drinking is often a part of the culture and you should never pour your own drink. You’ll be pouring someone else’s drink, 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 South Korean etiquette rule as soon as possible!
Photo Credit: Graham Hills
3. Don’t write names in red ink
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 the right Korean etiquette, write in blue or black ink.
4. Don’t assume you can call people by their first names
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 South 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 the first time you meet. 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.
5. Stay clear of pregnant, elderly, handicapped seating
The mass transportation in South 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 in South Korea, 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. You may see the sign for 노약자석, which means “seating reserved for the handicapped, the elderly, and pregnant women.”
6. Don’t blow your nose in front of others
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 in South Korea, best to excuse yourself and head to the restroom.
7. Follow eating order at the dinner table
Want to make a good impression at the dinner table in South Korea? 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.
8. Use the polite version of the Korean language
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 South Korea without knowing any Korean, so you can make a really good impression by doing your research. Learning Korean phrases is easy. You can start with the basics here.
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.)
9. Be aware of the difference in family names
If you’re meeting a Korean male that is older than you, then 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. It would be considered polite among Korean customs. 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. According to Korean customs, when Koreans marry, the wife keeps her family name. However, the children take the father’s family name.
What to do: Stick to the name calling rules we outlined above and you’ll be all set. Just ask your South Korean colleagues how they’d like to be referred to!
10. Accept invitations for nights out
If you’re in South 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 understand Korean culture and Korean etiquette better (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 South 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 South Korean social etiquette, go to new parts of the city, and make great friends.
11. Handle business cards properly
When you exchange business cards at a meeting in South Korea, 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 a business 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 South 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 South Korea? We’d love to hear from you, so feel free to leave a comment below!