Traditions & Customs
Coming from a land of strict Confucian hierarchy and etiquette, the Korean people are regarded as reserved and well mannered. As a visitor, you will not be expected to know every nuance, but making an effort will certainly be appreciated. The further you are away from metropolitan areas the more conservative the people are.
For the most part, Koreans are understanding of foreigners not knowing all the traditional Korean customs. Nevertheless following these rules will impress them:
- 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" (the direct translation is "do you have peace") should suffice.
- It is very important to remove your shoeswhen entering many places in Korea. It is always expected that you take off your shoes in someone's home. It is also required in many good restaurants (especially family run ones), smaller hospitals, medical clinics and dentists. Convention is usually to leave your shoes by the front door, and indoor slippers may be provided to use inside.
- 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.
- Never discuss or joke about your criminal history, or even that of someone to whom you are related. Even if the crime is regarded as very minor in your home country, Koreans will still likely regard you in a very negative way.
- 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.
- Similar to neighbouring countries, always use both hands when giving and receiving business cards.
- 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 island, the Korean war of the early 1950s and US foreign policy, or engage in other political discussions (unless mentioned to you) as these are delicate topics. Should your hosts bring it up, it is best to stay neutral and avoid any debates.
- Do not attempt to compliment North Korea in any way, even in jest. On the other hand, be careful not to go out of your way to be critical of North Korea since they are still regarded as 'brother Koreans' and you are a foreigner.
- South Korean households often have strict rules about recycling: for example, one bin may be for paper only and another in the kitchen may be for food/drink containers. Also be aware that each district in Korea has its own unique recycling scheme! The garbage bags must be purchased from a supermarket and MUST be of the type designated for your local district.
- Never pour your own drink when dining with Koreans, but always take the initiative to pour for others. When dining with Koreans, the oldest should always eat first.
- It is common to hear people talking loudly in restaurants, as a sign of being happy and enjoying the food. But always remember to act polite in front of older people especially at the table. Koreans think making a loud sound in front of older people is rude.
- Much like their Chinese and Japanese neighbours, Koreans place a very strong emphasis on "saving face". Unless you are in a position of seniority, you are advised not to point out the mistakes of others in order to avoid causing major embarrassment.
- Although you may notice similarities between Korean culture and that of neighboring China and Japan, be aware that Koreans are fiercely proud of their unique culture and that you shouldn't go overboard making national comparisons.
Given the long history of unwanted intervention in Korea by foreign nations, Koreans are understandably rather sensitive about certain topics. You should avoid discussing the following topics since they are never going to achieve anything but getting you onto someone's bad side. Playing devil's advocate is really not appreciated in Korea.
- Japan's annexation and brutal colonization of Korea until 1945
- Japan's lack of recognition and apology over the sexual enslavement of Korean 'comfort women' during World War 2
- Japan's territorial claims over the South Korean island of Dokdo
- The Korean war and anything to do with North Korea
- Bad behavior of individual members of the United States military currently stationed in South Korea
- Any deference of the South Korean military towards the United States military
- Any international sporting controversies where South Korean athletes are involved
- Referring to the sea to the east of South Korea as the (otherwise internationally accepted) 'Sea of Japan'. You should always refer to it as the 'East Sea'.
- The MV Sewol ferry disaster of April 2014. It is no exaggeration to say that the country was deeply traumatized by this incident, and many entertainment programs were cancelled over the following months. There is currently a lot of introspection going on around this, although as a foreigner your contributions may not be appreciated. Solidarity is shown with yellow ribbons so make sure you don't make jokes about the many ribbons when you see them.
Religion in South Korea has changed a great deal over time, with today's main religions of Buddhism and Christianity both having been oppressed over the past centuries. Today just under half of Koreans state that they have no religious affiliation. There are practically no tensions at all between the different groups, with religion being usually regarded as a personal choice.
Buddhism was historically the main religion in Korea (albeit often suppressed in favor of Chinese Confucianism), and Buddhist temples are major tourist attractions throughout the country. As in many Asian countries there are Buddhist Swastikas on display at religious buildings. You will notice they are actually drawn in reverse to the one used in Nazi Germany and in no way represent antisemitism. When visiting Buddhist temples you should be respectful by not making too much noise, eating or drinking.
Uniquely in East Asia and thanks to the American occupation during the Korean War, South Korea has a very high proportion of Christians (of mostly Protestants (18%) and Roman Catholics (11%) ) and churches can be found absolutely everywhere in the country. Christians in South Korea tend to be strongly conservative and frequently highly evangelical, sending large number of evangelical Protestant missionaries abroad (rivalling the United States in this regard). It is common for both strangers and acquaintances to ask you to come to their church, although offence will not usually be taken if you decline.
Korean Shamanism, also known as Muism, is the indigenous religion of the Korean people since ancient times. Although it is followed by less than 1% of South Koreans today, its practices and beliefs are known to most and to some extent still practiced by many people, having been incorporated into both Christian and Buddhist rituals.
Confucianism was often promoted as the state religion during Korea's history, and although there are few adherents today the majority of Koreans will be familiar with its teachings and practices, and even Government officials are still required to sit Confucian examinations.
Although same-sex relationships are not recognized by the government, there are no laws against homosexuality in South Korea. 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. South Korea has a large number of evangelical Christians who generally strongly disapprove of homosexuality. Nevertheless, verbal and physical attacks against gay people are rare.
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.