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10 Uniquely Korean Customs & Mannerisms

10 Uniquely Korean Customs & Mannerisms

Every country has a host of social manners and etiquette that contribute to define its culture. This is no exception with South Korea. In fact, the Korean peninsula boasts plenty of these customs. There are well-known ones such as bowing, removing shoes indoors, to name a few. Today, however, we take a look at more nuanced mannerisms that I’ve observed during my sojourn.

1 – Beware of the pushing & shoving  

The notion of saying “excuse me” or “sorry” when attempting to bypass someone while walking, on an escalator, or on a crowded grocery store simply doesn’t exist in this country. Instead, Koreans have no qualms about pushing and jostling people to get to where they need to be. They do this silently and unapologetically. When I first moved to SoKo I found this perplexing, but I’ve grown accustomed to it because I now reciprocate the behavior. It’s effective and the locals never seem to bat an eyelash when I gently move them out of my way!

2 – What personal space?

Confucianism ideology reigns supreme in Korea and this set of beliefs greatly influences society, including how Koreans view space. In Western countries, we believe in ‘personal space’, the idea that there is an invisible bubble surrounding each person that shouldn’t be violated. We are socialized to respect strangers’ personal space by avoiding overly close proximity. But this construct gets thrown out the window in the ROK. Koreans don’t believe in the separation of space, rather they view it as a shared entity. There is no distinction between my and your space, there’s simply our space. The implications for this usually manifest in complete strangers getting uncomfortably close to you in public settings, from a crowded bus, to an elevator.

3 – Use both hands

Bill Gates being 'disrespectful' while shaking hands with former Korean president

Bill Gates being 'disrespectful' while shaking hands with former Korean president

Shaking hands or receiving/giving an object single handedly is a big NO-NO in Korea. When shaking hands, the left hand shouldn’t stay resting by one’s side. Instead, it should be used to clasp the hand of the person you’re meeting or be placed on your right arm. Whatever you do, don’t shake single-handedly. It’s considered very rude.

Larry Page properly shaking hands with the same president.

Larry Page properly shaking hands with the same president.

Same concept applies when receiving/giving an object or pouring a drink. Regardless of the item, it should be held with both hands. This gesture conveys respect.

4 – Smiling is for fools

Walking around in the streets of Korea, one would get the impression that its citizens aren’t the friendliest of people based on the scowls they wear on their faces. The truth is that most Koreans I’ve actually gotten to know are very warm and generous. However, Koreans find smiling at a stranger stupid or borderline crazy. I read this online, so take the explanation with a grain of salt, but the fact remains that you won’t find Koreans smiling publicly for no apparent reason.

5 – Don’t talk to strangers!

You know how sometimes you’re out at the store or riding the subway and the friendly person (who happens to be a stranger) next to you strikes up a conversation? This isn’t a thing in S. Korea. At all. The idea that Koreans may randomly start a casual conversation with people they don’t know is unheard of. The caveat here is that may feel slightly more comfortable approaching foreigners because they’re aware we’re more open to this type of interaction. I find this fascinating, not because I have met that many people in this fashion, but because the possibility of this happening isn’t really an option to begin with. This explains why my Korean neighbors refuse to acknowledge me after living in the same building for a year and half!

6 – Nobody cares about your ah-choos

When a person sneezes, it is customary in the U.S. for people nearby to say, “Bless you”. In Spanish-speaking countries, we say “Salud”, but in Korea only crickets are heard after sneezing. There really isn’t any explanation that I know of for the lack of a well-wishing phrase after this bodily release, that’s just how it is here.

7 – Hugging is awkward

I’m a hugger. Not the type that hugs people upon the first meeting, but at the end, after (and if) establishing a solid connection. Hugs are just so nice and instinctual. But Koreans don’t seem to agree. They don’t go around hugging people after meeting them only once. In Korea, hugging is reserved for family, close friends and significant others. I knew about this before arriving in Korea but forgot it a few times in the beginning, getting me into some awkward side hugs situations with my coworkers. Thankfully we’re past that now as I’ve learned to keep my hugs to myself.

8 – Brush your teeth!

Koreans love to brush their teeth. I found it peculiar that all of my coworkers brushed their teeth immediately after lunch. I know some friends in the US carry around toothbrushes to do just this, but in Korea, doing as such is the norm. I’m the odd one for not joining in. I was even gifted a toothbrush and toothpaste set by one of my coworkers that I rarely use! I think Koreans are adamant about teeth brushing because the food tends to have a lot of spices and kimchi is a stinky food, so perhaps they want minty fresh breath after eating a meal consistent of pungent dishes.

9 – Put your face on

Korean women are constantly touching up their makeup. Perhaps I notice it so much because I don’t really wear any, but when I lived in the US, I never witnessed any of my female coworkers reapply lipstick and powder their faces multiple times during the workday. Doing as such is very common in SoKo. Before moving to Korea, I had a view that if one wanted to brush their teeth or reapply makeup, excusing oneself to do so in the bathroom was the socially acceptable and polite thing to do. But this isn’t the case in this country. Women happily reapply makeup in restaurants, coffee shops, public transport, at work, everywhere. I don’t find anything wrong with this, it’s just that it took a while to get used to this norm.

10 – Titles matter

In a Korean professional setting, calling each other solely by one’s first name is considered disrespectful. Instead, employees address each other by their name followed with their work title. For example, two teachers may refer to each other as Minji Teacher and Hyerin Teacher, but never Minji and Hyerin. I didn’t know this until a few months of working here, at which point I had been referring to all my coworkers only by their first name. When I brought this up to apologize, they told me foreigners get a break with this custom because they’re aware we don’t abide by it. Phew!

Korea can be perceived as a rude(ish) and distant society, and in my opinion, it is to a certain extent. I oftentimes find certain behaviors very inconsiderate, but I try not to take anything too personally because their worldview differs from mine. I don’t consider the Korean way of doing things right or wrong, just another variation in lifestyle.

What’s your take on manners & etiquette in S. Korea? / If you enjoyed this article, feel free to share / Don’t forget to subscribe below for bi-monthly updates!

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