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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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