With the world now more connected than ever, through the power of various social media platforms, South Korea has emerged as a cultural superpower. The Hallyu Wave took the world by storm, with K-pop artists receiving a spotlight in Western award shows like the Grammys, and Korean movies such as Parasite, winning the Oscars.
But beware, South Koreans deeply respect tradition and culture, so it is helpful to be sensitive to some of their social etiquette. With that said, here are some dos and don’ts when traveling to South Korea.
1. Receive gifts and objects with both hands. When receiving an object or a gift from someone, it is seen as polite and respectful to use both hands.
2. Use your palm when hailing a taxi. In many countries, people can hail a taxi using their forefingers. However, it is considered rude in South Korea and you might be ignored by taxi drivers who feel offended by the gesture.
3. Take your shoes off when entering a home. South Koreans are very particular with cleanliness, especially within their homes. They also sit on the floor frequently and many households eat their meals while sitting on the floor. Therefore, it is considered polite to remove one’s shoes to avoid leaving dirt on the floor.
4. Learn basic Korean words and phrases. The majority of the Korean population do not speak English, and you might have a hard time communicating if you don’t make the effort to learn basic Korean phrases. Learn common Korean phrases and questions that might help you on your travel.
5. Use two hands for a handshake; it is considered respectful.
6. Handle business cards properly. Business cards are not just pieces of paper, in South Korea, they represent the person. It is considered polite to receive business cards with both hands and read them in the person’s presence. Don’t immediately tuck it away in your pocket.
7. Mind your gestures! It may seem a friendly gesture in some countries to offer a kiss or a hug, but South Koreans may see it as a violation of their personal space. Respect their boundaries.
8. Learn chopstick etiquettes. While chopsticks may seem complicated to use, it is highly advisable to learn how to use them, especially when traveling to countries in East Asia. Much like Japan, it is considered rude to stick your chopsticks directly upright in a bowl of rice as it is considered bad luck. Don’t stab your food using chopsticks, even if it’s tempting. It shows you don’t know how to use them.
9. Ask for a Korean’s age. It might be offensive to ask for a person’s age in some countries, but in South Korea, age hierarchy is everything.
10. Hold on to your trash! Trash bins are scarce in public spaces, so keep an eye out for trash bins when you explore, while keeping your trash with you.
1. Don’t write names in red ink. Names written in red ink means they are deceased. If the person is alive, the person who wrote their name in red ink is indicating that they wish death upon them, so don’t do it!
2. Don’t blow your nose in a public area; it is considered rude and impolite. Wait until you find a bathroom or a private space before blowing your nose.
3. Giving tips is not necessary; good news if you are saving money! You don’t need to tip the servers, and in some cases, they might even refuse when you insist on leaving a tip.
4. Beware of number four! The number four is considered bad luck in Korea, which is why in some buildings, the 4th floor is missing. Also, don’t give gifts in fours.
5. Don’t assume you can call people by their first names. South Koreans are very particular with the way they address each other, especially if they have a formal relationship. Address South Koreans the way they introduce themselves, and it is advisable to use honorifics; especially to elder Koreans.
6. Don’t be noisy on public transportation. It is frowned upon to chat on public transportation. Most Koreans will stay quiet or speak in a hushed volume, so refrain from talking loudly on buses and trains.
7. Do not open a gift in the presence of the giver – it is considered rude to open the gift in front of the person who gave it to you.
8. Avoid confrontations. South Koreans dislike confrontations. When they see something that is considered improper in public, they will simply look away or sigh.
9. Don’t refuse food or drink. When an acquaintance offers you food or drink, it is customary to accept it; especially if the person offering you food is older than you.
10. Don’t smoke while taking a walk. It is considered improper to walk around while smoking, even if the place does not prohibit smoking.