As with many countries, there is an element of cultural etiquette in Korea to be aware of. Korea is a relatively Westernized and modern country so, although it is in the Far East, it is easy to forget that you are miles away from home and what is familiar. Many aspects of Korean cultural etiquette stem from confucianism and ancient Asian traditions of respect and honor. Here’s a little introduction to cultural etiquette in Korea to help stop you conducting any cultural faux pas when you arrive in the land of Morning Calm.
One hand bad, two hands good
When I first arrived in Korea, I found it bizarre when I would hand over my debit card at a store and the server would accept it with both hands cupped together like they were accepting a precious trophy but it is actually considered rude to take something with one hand in Korea – it would be the equivalent of snatching something away from someone in the West. If you have your hands full and it is difficult to accept what somebody is giving to you using two hands, then you should accept it with one hand but touch the joint of your receiving arm with your other arm.
Being British, I am all about politeness and manners so bowing is one aspect of Korean culture that I really like. In Korea, like a number of other Asian countries, bowing is a sign of respect and acknowledgement. The bow varies depending on the person that you are communicating with. When you enter a store or restaurant, it is typical to greet the person working there with a slight nod of the head. You will exercise the same again after you have paid and are leaving the place.
If you are interacting with an older person or your superior in a working environment, you should show your respect by doing a full bow like you’re in the finale of a West End Musical.
When Korea was not as affluent as it is today, it was traditional for Koreans to take their shoes off before entering a home because they spent a lot of time on the floor. That is to say, people ate their meals on the floor, and slept in ondal style rooms (i.e. a futon bed). Today, amenities and furnishings are much more westernised but the tradition has continued. You will find shoe racks at the entrance to homes and many restaurants. Cleanliness is no doubt another factor here – it would be considered incredibly rude to walk into someone’s home without taking off your shoes.
If you are entering a restaurant that has floor seating then you are expected to take off your shoes. Sometimes, medical centres, beauty salons and spas also request for you to remove your shoes, and provide you with a pair of indoor slippers.
X Marks The Spot
Though it may appear quite startling and perhaps a little rude at first, it is typical for Koreans to cross their arms in front of them and make an “X” shape when they are expressing a negative i.e. “no” or “we don’t have it”. Who knows, in time you may find yourself doing the same.
Yelling At Wait Staff
Okay well maybe at yelling, but if you take a seat at a restaurant and just wait to be served well then you’ll be waiting until the apocalypse. Oftentimes, restaurant tables have a button on the table to summon over the wait staff. If there is no button, you can shout a polite 저기요 (jeogiyo!). This literally translates to “I’m here” but is the Korean answer to “excuse me”.
Respect Thy Elders
It’s polite in any culture to be respectful towards elders, to offer them up your seat on the subway and so on, however in Korea, not only do the elders expect it, they demand it, and cross them at your peril. Ajummas and Ajosshis (Korean elders) are a feisty bunch and seeing an old lady slap the knees of a youngster to make them move on the subway is not an uncommon sight.
Have you been to Korea? What is your experience with Korean cultural etiquette? Did you experience any culture shock?