Korean Culture 101 – Learn Before You Get There

by Jason -- August 13, 2010

Welcome to Korean Culture 101. The idea behind this post is to explain the primary things one should know about the culture so as to not piss people off before entering the country. I also try to throw in some things that are vastly different than life in the western world.

A quick warning: Most of these cultural observations are vast generalities that certainly won’t apply to everyone, but we’ve heard most of these from multiple people or witnessed them ourselves.

Introductions

  • When meeting someone or saying goodbye, it’s customary to bow your head to the person.
  • When shaking hands, passing money or a business card, the most polite way to do so is using both hands. However, there are less formal ways as well, depending on the situation. Placing your left-hand on your right-elbow is less formal than using both hands. Placing your left-hand on your chest is even less formal (but still considered polite). It can be considered quite rude however if you pass something with your left-hand.

Restaurants

  • There’s never a need to ask for the bill in a Korean restaurant. They typically don’t give them out.
  • You don’t pay at the table in a Korean restaurant. You always pay at the front of the restaurant. (Because of this, it’s always fun to watch Korean people run to the front to pay; to have the honor to pay the entire bill for everyone.)
  • No tipping in Korean restaurants (or taxis for that matter either). I’ve even heard stories of the restaurant workers being confused as to why you’ve left too much money and giving the money back to the customers.
  • Credit cards are accepted everywhere (Visa and MasterCard). It’s extremely rare for a restaurant, shop, or whatever to not accept credit cards.

Drinking

  • When drinking with others, it’s customary to not pour your own drink.
  • When someone is pouring your drink, out of respect you should hold your glass with two hands.
  • As Sharon has previously written about, drinking and being drunk is completely acceptable in Korean culture. If you’re drunk and loud in a quiet neighborhood, it’s typically excusable and no one will call the police.

Married Life

  • After a husband and wife are married, it’s common for a man to spend more time with his friends than his family. In fact, his friends will typically come before his family.
  • You’ll hardly ever see a woman smoking in public. But inside a bar or a club, they smoke like chimneys.
  • Once married, it’s Korean a custom that the woman belongs to the man’s family. There’s even a Korean saying that says that if the wife dies, she will haunt her husband’s family.

Other

  • Koreans count age differently than the western world counts age. When you’re born, you’re considered 1, rather than 0. Additionally, instead of adding a year on your birthday, everyone becomes one year older on New Year’s Day. An interesting example of this is Sharon. Her birthday is December 24th. According to Korean age, 6 days after being born, she turned 2.
  • A lot of Korean words are simply English words spelled out phonetically using Korean characters. Korean can be learned in a couple hours, making it a fun thing to try and learn on the airplane ride over.
  • The Korean language can be spoken with a huge range of formality. A verb can be conjugated numerous ways, each way being a different level of formality. For example, you use the most polite form when speaking with your grandparents. If talking with someone that’s a few years older than you, at a store for example, you use a different type of conjugation. When talking with your friends you use a non-formal conjugation. The most interesting example of this is in a school setting. If you’re talking with someone that is one grade ahead of you, a 2nd grader talking with a 3rd grader, the 3rd grader will expect you to use a certain formal way of speaking to them. They’ll even go so far to correct the younger student.
  • Similar to the roman character transliteration of Chinese (Pinyin), Korean spelled out phonetically in English requires you to learn how to pronounce it correctly. Sounding out the English transliteration as you would assume it sounds intuitively is typically wrong.
  • Sticking up your middle finger used to mean nothing in Korea. However, because of the pervasiveness of American movies, it is now considered a rude gesture. The true Korean equivalent of sticking up your middle finger, is to hold your hand in a fist, and then stick your thumb up, in-between your middle and ring finger.

Photo Credit: Art Gallery of New South Wales, PettirojoStewils


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12 Responses to “Korean Culture 101 – Learn Before You Get There”

  1. Great post, Jason! I’ve actually just learned that I’ll be in Korea for five days in May at the conclusion of my seven-month Asia jaunt (which is a SECRET right now, FYI!). This advice will be taken to heart!

  2. another i heard about eating is the first person to take a bite at the table should be the oldest male. Have you guys noticed that?

  3. In China the oldest at the table would “call dinner”, say something like “Time to eat”. After my grandfather passed away it was my grandmother’s turn, then the oldest uncle at the table. My relatives all remember the precise sequence of all the family members, down the the youngest cousin.

  4. Jason,
    Some good tips – a couple things to add:

    “# There’s never a need to ask for the bill in a Korean restaurant. They typically don’t give them out.”

    This depends on the restaurant. The more traditional Korean restaurants will have a pad of paper indicating items for sale, their price, and a box to add slashes that indicate quantity. That may stay on the table, or it may be kept by the counter / cashier.

    # No tipping in Korean restaurants (or taxis for that matter either). I’ve even heard stories of the restaurant workers being confused as to why you’ve left too much money and giving the money back to the customers.

    Most restaurant workers don’t expect tips – but any bartender knows what’s going on.

    # Credit cards are accepted everywhere (Visa and MasterCard). It’s extremely rare for a restaurant, shop, or whatever to not accept credit cards.

    Most (but not all) decent-sized restaurants accept credit cards, as do most official name-brand restaurants or other shops. If you’re going to Dongdaemun, Namdaemun, Myeongdong, or buying person-t0-person, bring lots of cash. ATM’s are occasionally around, but cash is still king – especially if you’re trying to get a discount.

    Yongsan is one place that accepts credit cards – if you pay the extra fee. It costs a fair amount to process credit cards, and that cost is passed onto you. Paying cash is the easiest way to get the best price.

  5. Kate – Thanks! Sounds like an awesome trip, looking forward to hearing the details about it!

    Holly – Nope, I never noticed that. But to be fair, we didn’t eat in formal situations too often.

    Vivian – That’s really interesting, I wouldn’t be surprised if they do that in a formal setting in Korea as well, like Holly mentioned.

    Chris – Awesome, thanks for adding to the education!

  6. Great post! However, I have been strongly cautioned that their example of the “bird” (putting thumb between pointer and middle finger) is actually much much worse and should never be done! ..even in place of the middle finger! …extremely offensive, beware!

  7. Interesting Elise — I didn’t realize how offensive this was. Thanks for sharing!

  8. Hi: I just moved into a senior citizens residence only to find that 75% of the old people here are Koreans! I am trying to find some commonality between us and it seems like Karaoke is the ticket! I have a song “Glad to Meet You” which usually shows a man and woman shaking hands but I needed a photo of men bowing. Thanks to you, I found one. I hope it’s okay that I used it in the song. I know all the Koreans will appreciate it.

  9. Maybe it’s no longer rude to pass things with the left hand in Korea. Korean merchants hand change to me with their left hands all of the time.

  10. Korean can be learned in a couple hours!? Uh no. Maybe you are talking about Konglish.

  11. You’re right — I should have said **reading** Korean can take a couple hours. Learning to speak will take a LOT longer :-).

  12. Actually I have been studying korean for a year (at the least) and still can’t read or speak the majority of the language. Although a couple hours might earn you a few words, you probably won’t learn enough to get by.

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