Minding Your Korean Manners – Fact versus Fiction

It’s been a week since my last post. My apologizes. Crunch time in regards to baby, school and work. However, I have some holidays coming up for the baby’s birth, so hopefully the wife will let me sneak away to do a couple of reviews 😉

Ahh.. the Lonely Planet section on Korean manners at the back of the guidebook. It’s always nice to see this perspective, especially if you are new to the ROK. Some of the manners are legitimate, but others are a bit of an exaggeration. Let’s go through each manner step by step and find out which manners are correct and which are exaggerated. Now, before we begin, I would just like to state that these are my experiences only, if you have other experiences, please feel free to share friend.

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Don’t stick chopsticks into rice, it means someone is dead.

Shoes Off – Fact

My first Korean social faux pas when I first arrived four years ago. In the middle of the night, in a daze of jetlag, hunger and confusion, I just happened to walk into my new apartment with my shoes on and collapsed in my bed. My boss at the time went bananas. His lovely wife kept pointing to my shoes, yelling this alien language. Finally I got the picture and tossed my shoes on the balcony. If you enter into someone’s house or in some cases a traditional restaurant, the shoes must come off. Stock up on Odor Eaters if you have smelly feet.

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Artful Bow – Faction (See what I did there?)

The artful bow is subjective depending on the person in context. In my experiences, a bow is considered polite when you meet someone for the first time, much like a handshake. Now, as your friendship develops, it’s weird for someone to continuously bow every time they meet or depart, as the LP suggests. Korean friends of mine, as the friendship develops, actually are more comfortable with a hug upon meeting or departing. That said, it would be strange if you hugged your soon to be in-laws the first time you meet them. Good luck!

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All Hands on Deck (aka Giving and Receiving an Object with Both Hands) – Fiction

If you are at a wedding, or another formal event, than you could make the argument that this is a fact. However, since 99.9% of your day is going to be interacting with Koreans on a fairly informal basis, than I would lean towards fiction. I always used both hands when I first arrived in the ROK. However, over the course of my time here, I’ve just gradually just handed items back and forth with one hand like we do in the west. I’ve never been corrected, and I’ve seen Koreans hand stuff to each other all the time without using both hands. On a special occasion, like a wedding, Chuseok, or if you are handing over a business card, then I would make the exception and hand the gift to your in-laws or friends with both hands. Just don’t feel like you need to do this during everyday life.

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Giving Gifts – Fact

If you are ever invited into a Korean house, especially for a dinner or a special event, you should definitely bring a gift. It’s not different from Western culture, in the sense, if you are invited over for dinner, to bring something as a token of your appreciation. I usually like to bring a bottle of wine, some chocolate or a cake for dessert. That said, it is rare that your host will refuse the gift, as the LP states. In most cases, they will be appreciative that you brought the gift and accept it in a polite manner (usually two hands).

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Paying the Bill – Fiction (Unless you want to kiss some ass)

Fighting over the bill, at least between foreigners and Koreans is a rare thing. I’ve never had a Korean refuse a free drink 🙂 Also, on most occasions, Koreans that I’ve become friends with usually insist on splitting the bill, just like in the west. It’s a rare occurrence when Korean and Western friends play the quid pro quo game and fight over who pays the bill. Now, on the flip side if you have a Korean friend who is always trying to get you to pay the bill because it’s common in their “culture”, that should be a huge red flag. It happens in Korea occasionally, just like in the west.

LP claims that, “If a Korean takes you under their wing, it will be difficult to pay for anything” That is such bullshit. It is very, very rare that a Korean will take you under their wing and pay for everything like you are some foreign God. You have to remember, you are not the first foreigner they have dealt with. Unless you provide some type of special skill that will make or break their company, they are not going to pay for everything. I’m thinking of the normal guy/girl who is coming over to Korea to teach English, not Zuckerberg or Sergey. Don’t expect your boss, host, whoever to pay for everything. You will be sorely disappointed. However, if you want to score some brownie points at work, take the boss out for BBQ and some soju and grab the bill. It will score you some points at work. Kiss ass.

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Get Over Here – Fact

LP is right on the money here. If you are waving over a taxi, don’t wave frantically. Put your hand out, face down and simply wave your hand or flutter your fingers. This is beneficial in Korea, because it signals to the taxi driver that you aren’t a momo and that you have an understanding of the culture. Thus, it makes for an easier ride for the driver.

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Loss of Face – Fact (But it’s fun to lose face in front of Koreans sometimes just to see their reactions)

One of my biggest cultural conflicts is the “loss of face”. Although I still don’t agree with it, it is engrained in Korean society like kimchi and rice. In my culture, where yelling means caring, my transition to this aspect of Korean culture is an arduous one. Oftentimes I’ve yelled at people, not because I’m upset, but because I want to get my point across. Also, with the language barrier, the louder I am the clearer it is for the other person. So yeah, keep things nice, calm and cool no matter what the situation. That said, if you’re out of fucks to give, just yell at your Korean boss or coworker who has been pissing you off and watch the hilarity ensue.

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Smile You’re Embarrassed – Fiction

I’ve never understood this one, nor have I experienced it. LP claims that if Koreans are in the wrong, they will smile to show that they are embarrassed. A couple of things to remember. Age is very important in this culture. If your boss is wrong and he/she is older than you, they will never admit they are wrong. 100% guarantee. In this culture, the older the wiser is true to its meaning. The Korean environment is full of “yes men/women”. They smile, nod and agree with everything their bosses do. It’s part of the culture.

Second, if you get run down by a taxi, odds are they will back up and run you over repeatedly in order to kill you (If you survive, they have to pay all of your medical bills.) Normally, when Koreans get embarrassed, at least in my experiences, it’s similar to Western reactions; their face turns a shade of red and they start to laugh, or they panic and run out. I’ve never experienced the “smile your embarrassed” phenomena, nor should you expect to either.

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Final Thoughts

In my experiences simply saying “안녕하세요” (annyeonghaseyo) which means “hello” and “감사합니다” (gamsahabnida) which means “thank you”, goes a long way in regards to manners. It shows that you have taken the time to learn a bit of their language, and have invested in their culture. My suggestion is to learn a few practice phrases before coming to Korea. Finally, don’t be a jerk and realize there are things about Korea that are going to drive you crazy. Just go with the flow.

3 comments

  1. Nice post. I think I agree with all the points here. I had an acquaintance who was bowing all the time (to the waiter in the restaurant, to friends of friends etc…) and it was making everyone (korean and westerners) really uncomfortable. Almost looked like he was making fun of it… and he was bowing japanese style whereas korean just lightly bow their head in most situations (unless chuseok etc.)

  2. Thanks Jonas! I was that guy for awhile. I was bowing to the taxi driver as I exited or the checkout person at Home Plus. Alas, the good people of Korea have set me straight on Korean culture and manners, at least for the while.
    Thanks for reading!

  3. Manners are an ODD creature in Korea… not the manners themselves… just that you can be called out on Korean manners, yet… a VAST proportion of Koreans in public lack decency by even KOREAN standards. Take the “rude to eat loudly” ethic – this has largely faded, and many people young and old chomp, slop, and SLURP (not just noodles) quite loudly, not just for the “gesture of gratitude for a nice meal” thing at all. This can become quite offensive to many foreigners in Korea. I’ve tried raising it with people beside me in restaurants, etc., and either they DON’T get what I mean manner-wise (my Korean is near-native fluent), or couldn’t care less.

    As an aside, just remember never to shake hands with Korean guys…they very often pick their noses, and almost NEVER wash their hands after peeing or #2!! I’ve worked in Korean companies for many years, and used Korean public toilets for over 10 years…about 10% of guys actually WASH their hands after toilet business.

    You have been warned!

    (This is SEPARATE from the fact that it’s considered rude in Korean culture to offer you hand to shake a older man’s hand.)

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