Local Customs in South Korea

Countries  »  South Korea  »  Local Customs

Local Customs and Culture in South Korea

Koreans are reserved and well-mannered people.

Korea is a land of strict Confucian hierarchy and etiquette. As a visitor, you will not be expected to know every nuance, but making an effort will certainly be appreciated. 

Following these rules will impress the locals:

  • Koreans bow to each other to show their respect when they meet. They may also shake hands. However, with people you know well, quick nod of the head and a simple annyeong haseyo (안녕하세요), meaning "hello," should suffice the direct translation is "do you have peace".
  • When meeting for the first time, older Koreans will tend to ask about your age, your parents' jobs, your job, and your education level. If you feel uncomfortable about the questions, just provide short answers and discreetly try to change the topic if possible.
  • When picking something up or taking something from somebody older, always use two hands. If you have to use one hand, you can simply support your right arm with your left hand. Likewise, when shaking hands with somebody older support your right arm with your left hand.
  • It is customary to take off your shoes in houses and in many traditional restaurants.
  • Koreans in general have very strong nationalistic views and would view any criticism of their country with varying degrees of hostility. To avoid getting into the bad books of your hosts, it is advisable to praise the country or, at least, to avoid bringing up anything negative about it.
  • Avoid bringing up the Japanese occupation, Dokdo, the Korean war of the early 1950s and US foreign policy, or engage in other political discussions (unless mentioned to you) as these delicate topics are likely to get you on someone's bad side and can lead to intense debates, use of negative epithets, or even violence. Also, do not attempt to compliment North Korea in any way.
  • South Korean households may have strict rules about recycling, for example one bin may be for paper only, as to another in the kitchen for food/drink containers.
  • Do not pour your own drink, but do pour for others. When dining with Koreans, the oldest always eats first. It is common to hear people talking loudly in restaurants, as a sign of being happy and enjoying the food. Also, slurping noodles is actually expected, as it shows that you enjoy the food and you are appreciating the cooking well.
  • Alike other Asian countries, when giving tips in restaurants, it is polite to fold the bill and hand it into the waiter's hands secretly and quietly, rather than leaving it on the table or displaying/waving the bill in full shape like the social norm in Western countries. Similarly, in households, when giving money to younger people, it is more acceptable to fold the money and place it in a piece of a paper, preferably an envelope.

The further you are away from metropolitan areas the more conservative the people are.

Religion

Swastikas are commonly seen in Buddhist temples. They are a religious symbol and do not represent Nazism or anti-Semitism, so visitors should not feel offended when encountering them.

Homosexuality

Homosexuality is a mixed bag in South Korea. While there are no laws against homosexuality in South Korea, same-sex relationships are not recognised by the government. Gay clubs and bars exist in the larger cities, though openly displaying your sexual orientation in public is still likely to be met with disapproval. Conversely platonic displays of physical affection between same-sex friends are very common, particularly when alcohol has been consumed, and holding hands with a same-sex romantic partner may be viewed in this light.

Note that it is common to see pairs of same-sex people publicly walking arm-in-arm. Usually, if not nearly always, this is an expression of platonic friendship.

The content on this page is available under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 license. It has been written by the users of WikiTravel and gapyear.com cannot not accept any responsibility for its accuracy. For any critical information you require, please be sure to check with the relevant embassy for the most up to date information before you travel.