Are you planning to live in Korea? Then you may be wondering if you will be able to adapt appropriately. A vital step to get used to a different country is to learn about its culture, customs, and etiquette in depth. In fact, as a foreigner, it will be almost inevitable to avoid mistakes until you are familiar with the culture and Korean manners (예의 /yei).
So please don’t feel bad about it! People in South Korea are kind and charming, and most Koreans will understand that you are still adjusting to their culture, as you would if you see a foreigner making a mistake in your country.
There are many cultural aspects that you should consider before you travel to Korea, but good manners are the most essential to learn. As a foreigner, you don’t have to feel the pressure of acting perfect, and there will be many times that you will make mistakes even without noticing. However, there are specific manners where an error will be seen as completely rude, no matter if you are a foreigner.
Thankfully, if you get enough information about Korean etiquette, you can distinguish what is acceptable and what is not, and therefore you will avoid uncomfortable situations.
If you agree and are interested in learning Korean etiquette, you are at the right place. While I explain these six most significant cultural mistakes to avoid while visiting South Korea (based on my personal experience), you will also learn some useful Korean vocabulary for your conversations.
7 Basic Korean Manners And Etiquette
Korea’s culture embraces respect, especially for elders. Before moving to Korea, I took basic language classes to learn about the culture. However, it wasn’t until I experienced it myself that I realized how vital customs and etiquette are for Korean people. And also how necessary it is for foreigners to be as respectful as Koreans are.
There will be mistakes that a Korean person can accept, but certain customs are more important and have to be always followed. Especially if you live in the country, so take note of the cultural mistakes you should avoid from the beginning of your stay in South Korea.
1. Avoid Direct Eye Contact With Your Seniors
Don’t: make eye contact with someone older or who has a higher status than you while being rebuked by said person.
Do: lower your head and avert your eyes once in a while to avoid maintaining eye contact for too long.
For many other cultures, making eye contact with people, such as your professor, is positive and expresses that you are paying attention. But in Korea, it depends on who you are talking to and the overall situation.
Have you noticed in K-Dramas, or Korean TV shows, how people gaze down when being scolded? There’s a reason for that. It has to do with respect for the elders that I previously mentioned.
In South Korea, you should always avert your eyes when a senior is talking to you, especially if they scold you or provide feedback about work. If you make eye contact, mainly if it is for a long time, you may come off as rude. For them, not averting your eyes in such a moment might make them feel as if you are challenging them or doubting their authority.
For example, as a university student, I had to receive feedback from my thesis tutor. Sometimes it was positive, but sometimes he had to scold me a bit to pressure me. While he was telling me that I should do a better job, I couldn’t look at him in the eyes. Instead, my gaze focused on the floor while I apologized.
As you can see, even your body language is essential in a situation like that. Not all professors or seniors will be as understanding about this mistake, so be careful.
Bonus! If you are wondering about eye contact with Korean friends, don’t worry! While having a casual conversation with someone you are close to, it is acceptable to make eye contact to express your interest in the conversation.
- Apologize: 사과하다 (sagwahada)
- Conversation: 대화 (daehwa)
- Reprimated: 꾸짖다 (kkujittta)
- Eye contact: 시선 마주침 (sison majuchim)
- Make eye contact: 아이컨택짖다 (aikontaek-jjittta)
2. Don’t Wave At Your Seniors!
Don’t: wave at your seniors to greet
Do: bow at them while saying ‘hello.’
If they are your professors, your boss, or anyone of higher rank, you don’t want to get in trouble! It is indispensable for you to learn how to bow and adequately greet while in a formal setting. This is one of the most vital Korean customs to master before arriving in the country.
I had an incredibly kind and open-minded professor back in my master’s degree who used to help me become more adjusted to the culture without scolding me for my mistakes. He studied abroad, so he knew how hard it could be for a foreigner to adjust.
One day when we encountered each other on campus, I waved at him instead of bowing. Big mistake, but thankfully, it was him and not an angry professor. I immediately realized that I waved at him and started bowing.
I was ashamed, but he came closer and made the same gesture with his hand while saying ‘안녕’ (Hello/Informal). He even addressed me by my nickname and patted my back. If I had done this to another professor, they would have probably looked at me angrily, at the least.
It would be best never to wave to greet an elder or people of higher status unless they feel comfortable and tell you that it’s ok.
On the other hand, if you are greeting younger people and friends, you can wave your hands at them, since the situation is casual and you are close to them.
- Greeting: 인사 (insa)
- Hello/Formal: 안녕하십니까 (annyeonghasibnikka)
- Senior: 선배 (sonbae)
- Foreigner: 외국인 (wegugin)
- Culture: 문화 (munhwa)
- Be angry: 화내다 (hwanaeda)
- Bow: 절을 하다 (joreul hada)
- To Laugh: 웃다 (uttta)
3. Sticking Your Chopsticks On The Rice?! Big NO!
Don’t: stick your chopsticks on the rice.
Do: gently put the chopsticks on the table next to your plate.
Whether in a restaurant, in a cafeteria, with friends your age, or with older people, you should always have proper manners when sitting at the table. For Koreans, eating is an important moment, and therefore, you will discover many table manners that they would expect you to follow.
Bonus! Do not raise the rice bowl towards your face while eating. Leave it at the table, and if you need to get closer to the plate, lower your head to eat.
- Rice: 밥 (bap)
- To Eat: 먹는다 (mongneunda)
- Food: 음식 (eumsik)
- Chopsticks: 젓가락 (otkkarak)
- Restaurant: 식당 (sikttang)
4. Who Has To Eat First At The Table?
Don’t: eat first at the table.
Do: wait until the elders eat, or until they tell you to start eating.
When you are eating with the eldest person at the dinner table, such as your teacher, boss, or anyone older than you, you should wait until they start eating first. Korean etiquette at the table is always essential to learn in any culture. For Koreans, mealtime is extremely important.
I remember when my professor invited us to a restaurant. No one took a bite before him unless he told us to begin eating. Also, we waited until he finished eating to finish ourselves, and we made sure to finish everything on the plate as well.
This situation can be slightly different with younger generations who wouldn’t mind who has to start eating first. However, if you are, for example, at a business meeting, no matter the age of the people attending, it will be best to wait until someone begin before you.
- Karaoke: 노래방 (nolaebang)
- Disrespectful: 무례한 (mulyehan)
- Please eat: 드세요 (deuseyo)
- Gracias: 감사합니다 (gamsahabnida)
- To have good/bad manners: 예의가 바르다/바르지 못하다 (yeuiga baleuda/baleuji moshada)
5. Always Take Off Your Shoes Inside A House
Don’t: wear shoes inside the house/or any place where it’s prohibited to use shoes.
Do: start using sandals and flip-flops, and be aware of signs at restaurants to know if you have to take off your shoes.
I have a story about a friend who forgot to take off her shoes during her first days of living in Korea and made a hole in the floor. How? Let me explain.
One day, she left the house but immediately came back running because she had forgotten something inside. She was not only in a rush; she was not used to the custom yet. So as soon as she stepped in with her winter boots, the floor broke, and her foot got stuck.
Houses in South Korea are built with an underfloor heating system to keep the environment warm during winter. A Korean lady of my university dormitory once told me that the flooring materials are often delicate. She warned us not to step on the room with shoes, or otherwise, we risk sinking it or even making holes.
But why else it’s prohibited to wear shoes inside a place in Korea? For Koreans, the floor is where they do many activities, including sitting, cooking, eating, and even sleeping. Therefore, it has to be completely clean.
You can even come across restaurants where they will ask you to take off your shoes at the door and use a flip-flop provided by the restaurant. A similar case happens at schools and some university laboratories. So, if you are not used to taking off your shoes and are about to live in South Korea, I suggest you begin practicing now.
- Shoes: 신발 (sinal)
- Sandal: 샌들 (saendeul)
- Floor: 바닥 (badag)
- Sleep on the floor: 바닥에서 자다 (badag-eseo jada)
- Cook on the floor: 바닥에 요리하다 (badag-e yoli jada)
- Sit on the floor: 바닥에 앉다 (badag-e anjda)
- Take shoes off: 신발을 벗고 (sinbal-eul beosgo)
- Dirty: 더럽다 (doroptta)
- Clean: 깨끗하다 (kkaekkeutada)
6. Pour Alcohol To Your Elders First
Don’t: pour your glass of alcohol first.
Do: offer and pour to your elders first and then pour your glass.
There is a strong culture of drinking alcohol with bosses, co-workers, or professors in South Korea. In K-Dramas, you have probably seen how people often go to drink and to the Karaoke after work, or they hold business meetings where they often drink. Koreans leverage this opportunity to break the ice and create bonds that may be difficult to achieve in a tense environment.
It’s crucial to clarify that if an older or higher-ranking person invites you for a drink, you’d better accept out of courtesy and respect. You don’t necessarily have to drink the alcohol, but showing up will be enough to leave a good impression on the senior who invited you.
By the time the first soju (alcoholic drink) or beer arrives at the table, it will be the younger person who serves the seniors. It is a Korean etiquette that people take very seriously, and there is even a traditional way to serve alcohol. You have to use your right hand to pour the beverage on the glass while supporting your right forearm with your left hand.
After you have served the eldest person, you can fill your own glass and drink. There will be moments where the senior will want to pour you a glass. That is alright. If you are already drinking with them, accept the glass with both hands and drink it. But remember, don’t drink facing directly at the seniors; instead, turn your head to the side and try to cover the glass with your other hand to show proper respect.
- Soju: 소주 (soju)
- Beer: 맥주 (maekjju)
- Makkoli: 막콜리 (makkolri)
- Face: 얼굴 (olgul)
- To turn one’s head: 고개를 돌리다 (gogaereul dolrida)
- Friendship: 우정 (ujong)
- Work: 작업 (jagop)
7. Avoid Pointing At Someone With Your Finger
Don’t: point at people or something with your index finger.
Do: use your entire hand if you need to refer to someone or something.
For example, if you are at a mall and someone asks you where a store is, don’t point at the store with your finger. Instead, use your entire hand to show the direction of the store. Use the same tactic when you urge pointing at someone. Always use your whole hand to avoid being considered rude.
Learn More Korean Etiquette And Customs!
During your stay in South Korea, you will have many moments to show your interest and affection for the country. Behave as well as you would like foreigners to behave in your country. Accept cultural differences and feel them as if they were yours. Doing so will even lessen your language barrier difficulties and help you adjust to your new environment quicker.
Whether traveling to Korea for studies, teaching English, or simply traveling around the country, you must show respect for Korea and the locals by living according to their customs.
Learn Korean Culture And Korean Language With Ling App
Now that you know some basic vocabulary and Korean manners, you will surely understand how deep and respectful Korean culture is. Your next step is to continue learning the language to avoid being considered rude and become more involved in South Korean society during your stay.
Ling App is the perfect solution if you don’t want to learn with books. Language Learning is now fun and engaging! Learn Korean with entertaining games and activities that will help you easily remember helpful vocabulary. Obtain a high language level to demonstrate excellent communication skills to your bosses, teachers, friends, or classmates. You will be speaking Korean with locals in no time while also showing your good manners!
Start learning Korean with Ling app today!