Understanding South Korea’s etiquette….

K-drama lovers and the curious ones, ever wonder why Koreans have maintained hundreds of years of cultural values despite the cutting-edge technologies and trends and is one of the most fast-paced and high-tech cities in the world?

Image ref: Fact Retriever

As progressive as Koreans are, many still retain traditional and Confucian values.

While most Koreans understand that foreigners committing minor social faux pas do not mean disrespecting of their culture, following basic Korean etiquette can help you make a better impression while promoting a more positive interaction with them.

Here are helpful tips to get you by!

Not using the two-handed Handshake:

Image ref: Magazine Korea

Koreans follow a social hierarchy that is primarily based on age. Note that the Korean age is different from the international age. Since you can’t always know a person’s age upon the first meeting, 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 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.

What can you 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 them. The same applies to 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.

Korean Bowing:

Image ref: Korea trip guide

Bowing is part of everyday life in South Korea and a big part of Korean culture. Social interactions either during casual or formal occasions often involve bowing. Bowing is usually done to someone older or of higher rank by a younger person or someone with a lower rank. Likewise, if someone gives you a polite bow when shaking your hand, it’s also 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. 

No first names without permission:

It’s a good idea to learn the 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: Don’t assume that you can call people by their first names. The safest way to handle this one is to ask that person what they would like to be called the first time you meet. Often that person will give you a version of their Korean name or their English name, allowing you to comfortably sidestep the complex name and title rules that Koreans live by.

Sitting in pregnant, elderly, or handicapped seating:

Image ref: 90 day Korean

South Korea has the ragging right to some of the best mass transportation systems in the world. People from all different walks of life use it, including pregnant women, disabled people, and the elderly. To accommodate them, there are special seats exclusively for these people on the buses and subways. It’s essential 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. Always respect the signs for pregnant, elderly, and disabled. 

Following eating order at the dinner table:

Image ref: Thrillist

Want to make a good impression at the dinner table in South Korea? Before you pick up your 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. You can imagine the look of horror on the face of your guest.

What to do: If you’re not sure of the other people’s age relative to yours, it’s 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.

Invitations for nights out:

Image ref: My Koean Addiction

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 a little better.

Handling business cards properly:

Image ref: Seoulz

When you exchange business cards at a meeting in South Korea, your first instinct may be to put them in your pocket or to write some notes on them. Please don’t do it! A Korean’s business card represents that person, so make sure you handle it with the proper respect.

What to do: When you first receive the 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.

It’s a lot, right?

Well, that’s the beauty of life. Getting these rules down will help you adapt to life in South Korea which can help if you’re dealing with culture shock.

Do you have any question or comment? Do share with us in the comment section.

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