South Korea Culture and Traditions: Your 2022 Guide

South Korea culture and traditions probably differ significantly from what you are used to. This is particularly true if you grew up in a western country. 

It can be very useful and enlightening to read up on the local cultural etiquette before you travel to Korea. This rings true whether you are simply embarking on a Korean travel itinerary or you are considering relocating to the country longer term. 

Opting to do so can help you to ensure that you don’t inadvertently cause offense or commit any kind of cultural faux pas while you are travelling here. Similarly, this can help you to gain a deeper understanding of South Korea and its people, beyond simply seeing the sights in the country. 

South Korea Culture and Traditions

South Korea culture and traditions

South Korea culture and traditions are far too diverse and complex to be able to summarize in a short article. However, an overview of some of the most notable aspects of the local culture is detailed below. 

Confucianism has had a huge influence on South Korea as it stands today. This ancient Chinese belief system has deep roots in moral and ethical values and how people are expected to act around people in society. You can see it demonstrated in many of the hierarchical Korean systems (e.g. in the workplace) and in the way that Koreans place large importance in respect, saving face, and how they are outwardly perceived. 

Saving face or “kibun” is very important 

South Korea culture and traditions
South Korea culture and traditions

In Korean culture, saving face, or “kibun” (체면을 지키다) is very important. This basically refers to how you are outwardly perceived by other people and in ensuring that you protect your reputation.

For example, if something should happen where you are publicly humiliated or made to look foolish in front of other people, you are losing face. An example may be if you are eating out at a restaurant with a Korean friend.

If the Korean friend offers to pay, it may seem polite to offer to split the bill evenly and “go Dutch”. However, the Korean person may take offence to that and “lose face” because they feel as though there is some implication that they cannot afford to cover the entirety of the bill themselves.

Similarly, it is rude to reject a gift. Doing so will not only cause you, as the unwilling recipient to lose face, it will also be humiliating for the gift-giver. 

This aspect of Korean culture can be tricky for foreigners to understand. There are so many situations where you can inadvertently cause offence.

What’s more, is that Koreans are usually very polite and will likely not tell you why they feel insulted. Do try and be mindful of your actions and how they could be interpreted where you can.

Language in South Korea 

South Korea culture and traditions
South Korea culture and traditions

Korean is the language that is spoken in both North and South Korea, although there are some differences between the two. Written Korean uses the Hangul ( 한글) alphabet.

This may look intimidating to outsiders but it is actually phonetic. You will likely find Korean hangul much easier to grasp than other Asian languages. For instance, Mandarin and Cantonese are far more complex.

Hangul was created in 1443 CE by King Sejong the Great. He wanted to improve the literacy of the Korean people and created an alphabet that would be easier to grasp than the Chinese characters that were used at that time.

English is not widely spoken in Korea, particularly not when you travel outside of Seoul. Still, you can likely get by in the country by using Google Translate and by memorising just a few useful phrases.

A lot of younger Koreans do speak English, particularly in the capital. Many study the language at school and in private language academies known as hagwons. Having a good grasp of English is becoming increasingly important for young Koreans that want to attend prestigious universities or secure jobs with international companies.

Many restaurants in Seoul and around the country only display their menu in Korean. However, the good thing is, that a lot of Korean eateries only serve one specialty dish.

So, you should never find yourself in a position where you don’t know what you are eating. It is a good idea to do a quick research of food places before you step inside them so you can see Google images and details about the dishes they serve.

Your age is calculated differently in South Korea 

South Korea culture and traditions
South Korea culture and traditions

Koreans count age differently than most people across the world. To Koreans, when you are born, you are already one year old. 

As such, when people ask how old you are, you are essentially one year older than your true age. That’s probably not what you want to hear if you are sensitive about approaching a certain milestone!

Of course, it’s still quite impolite to ask a lady her age in any country. So, you could just respectfully decline to answer! 

Street food is a huge part of the local culture

Korean street food has been a huge part of the country’s culture for decades. It is not just something that is simply regarded as a way to grab a light snack either.

People will often head out to street food markets for dinner on evenings when they don’t feel like cooking or they want to eat a specific dish. They will sit on plastic stools beneath pojangmacha tents where they can see food being prepared at live cooking stations right in front of them.

Popular street food eat ranges from light bites like fish cakes and tteokbokki (spicy rice cakes) to hearty soups and noodle dishes. The social aspect is a huge part of the experience too.

Older Koreans, as well as Korean businessmen, will visit street food markets to catch up with their friends, enjoy good food, and treat themselves to an ice-cold glass of soju or two. You will find street food stalls pop up on virtually every street corner in Korean cities, particularly at night.

If you are spending a few days in Seoul, there are a few markets, in particular, to add to your radar. Gwangjang is the city’s oldest market. 

It first opened its doors way back in 1905 and more than 65,000 people stop by every day! This is one of the best places to visit if you have an adventurous palate and want to try street food delicacies such as yukhoe (marinated raw beef) and soondae (Korean blood sausage).

If you want to try seafood delicacies, the Noryangjin fish market is the best place to head to. Finally, for international eats that originated in China and Southeast Asia, head to Ansan Multicultural Food Market.

Work ethic in South Korea 

Koreans are exceptionally hard workers and people here work very long hours. This can seem a little intense from an outside perspective.

However, it is also important to remember that South Korea is a country that drastically changed its economic situation in just a matter of decades. In the 1950s, Korea was still very much a developing country.

Today, the country boasts one of the strongest economies in the world. Koreans are fiercely proud of their country’s achievements and rightly so.

There are a couple of quirks of Korean work culture that it is useful to be aware of, particularly if you are considering working in Korea. First of all, Korean workplaces are very hierarchical. 

There are a lot of unwritten rules with regard to the way that you should address and interact with your superiors. Generally speaking, the higher up in the hierarchy you are, the better you are treated. 

Honorifics are often used to address superiors. Different companies have different cultures and some may require staff to bow to, or thank their superiors at the end of each working day.

Age and experience come into play a lot too. For instance, it is still uncommon for someone to be in a higher authoritative position than someone that is older than them. 

Sometimes, but not always, western workers can be somewhat exempt from the workplace expectations that are placed upon Koreans. You will note that Korean workers often stay at the workplace long after they are finished because they should not leave before the boss does. To do so would be to be disrespectful and lose face. 

Some workplaces implement hoesik (회식)

Hoesik (회식) is a social aspect of Korean work culture that involves members of a company going out for dinner, drinks, or even visiting a noraebang (Korean singing room). Some companies organise them every week, every month, or even more frequently.

If your boss or elder invites you to a hoesik (회식) it is usually considered rude to turn them down. Teambuilding and building relationships with coworkers is considered an important aspect of Korean culture.

Issues do occur sometimes as just like with being in the workplace, employees feel that they cannot leave until their boss leaves. Sometimes this can lead to frustrations as employees that work long hours then have to socialise with their bosses outside of the office and feel that their personal lives take a hit. 

Religion in South Korea 

Koreans have freedom of religion which is guaranteed by their country’s constitution. As you travel around the country to Jeonju, Seoul, Gwangju, Gyeongju, Busan, and beyond, you will see a large number of gorgeous, colourful, intricately-designed Buddhist temples.

It may come as a surprise then to learn that only 23% of Koreans identify as Buddhist. Meanwhile, another 29% are Christian, while 46% of people claim they are not religious. Christianity is the largest growing religion in Korea. 

People are expected to respect their elders 

Koreans are always expected to show respect to their elders. This is another aspect of South Korean culture and traditions that stem from Confucianism.

Older Koreans can be quite sassy in the way that they expect to be treated too. For instance, in any country, it is polite to stand up on a bus/subway/ and offer your seat to your elders.

However, in Korea, you can expect an older Korean to tap you on the shoulder and wait for you to move, or slap your feet with their walking stick. In this regard, riding the Seoul subway can make for some interesting viewing!

A lot of importance is placed on physical appearances 

South Korea culture and traditions
South Korea culture and traditions

Koreans place a lot of importance on physical appearances, more so than in most countries. When you apply for a job here, you have to submit a photo of yourself alongside your resume and the way you look can indeed affect the hiring process. 

A recent study found that 9 in 10 Koreans felt that the way they looked was extremely important. This is something that has not changed much in the past few decades. 

Being pretty is considered important in Korea and a lot of young women will opt to have plastic surgery. One popular procedure is an operation to make eyes wider in order to better resemble western eye shapes, rather than Asian ones. 

It is also not uncommon nor rude for people to comment on your appearance here. For instance, if you look tired, people will tell you.

They may also comment on your acne breakout or the dry skin you have on your forehead and offer suggestions for sorting it. This can be uncomfortable, particularly if you are self-conscious about your appearance, but people just believe they are being helpful.

Expect to see various billboards in Seoul advertising cosmetic procedures, particularly in Cheongdam and Gangnam. Many Korean shopping streets such as Myeongdong and the malls in Insadong and Dongdaemun are lined with beauty and skincare stores. 

Couples love to coordinate their style with each other

Have you ever heard that phrase about how couples that spend a lot of time together really start to look like each other? Well, that could not be more true in South Korea. 

In fact, couples coordinating their looks and wardrobes so that they look almost twin-like is practically the “in thing”. South Korean couples will often wear matching clothes, and buy matching couple rings for each other. If you date a Korean, and they suggest that you buy “couple rings”, you know that things are getting a little more serious!

Many holidays and celebrations are romantic occasions 

A lot of western countries celebrate Valentine’s Day as a romantic holiday. It is a day where people are expected to exchange gifts with their romantic partners or at least, express their appreciation and gratitude for each other.

Essentially, this is more of a hallmark holiday than anything else. In South Korea, Valentine’s Day is just one of many such romantic days.

There are more than 15 (!) romantic days in Korea and if you find yourself in a relationship with someone who appreciates grand gestures and expects a gift on each one, things can soon get expensive! White Day (March 14th) is also an important day. 

In Korea, Valentine’s Day is generally about women purchasing gifts for the men in their lives while White Day is about men getting gifts for their girlfriends. Christmas Day is also more of a romantic celebration here than a family event. 

November the 11th is Pepero Day

Another celebration to be aware of is Pepero Day which falls on the 11th of November each year. Pepero sticks are long, thin biscuit sticks that are usually dipped in different types of chocolate and toppings. They are comparable to Japanese Pocky.

The day is essentially one big marketing ploy but it is hugely celebrated across the country. People will joke that if you eat a lot of Pepero, you will become as tall and thin as the biscuits which is debatable! 

It is typical to buy boxes of Pepero for your romantic partner, but the boxes of biscuits are also given out to friends and colleagues. If you are an English Teacher, you can expect to receive boxes and boxes of Pepero from your students! 

Many things that are considered rude in the west are not rude in Korea

First of all, it should be noted that Koreans are generally very friendly and welcoming people. A lot of Koreans, particularly the younger generations, are very eager to practice their English with foreigners.

It is not unheard of for people to simply stop you in the street, tell you that they have been learning English, and engage in small talk with you. If you are spending a relative amount of time in Korea, you will find it easy to make local friends as there are many language exchange groups that exist here.

However, it should be noted that many things that are considered rude in the west are not rude in Korea. For instance, if you are walking behind someone and they pass through a doorway, they probably won’t hold it open for you.

You will have to open it yourself as they let it slam shut in your face. Similarly, if people absent-mindedly bump into you while texting on their phones, they likely won’t apologise or say anything.

As a westerner, that can seem startling and rude. Koreans aren’t being intentionally rude, it’s just a different approach. From there perspective, bumping into someone or letting a door slam was just a thing that happened and not a big deal. 

Koreans may have a Korean name and a western name 

Koreans usually have a separate western name that they use when communicating with westerners and then their given Korean name. This is largely because westerners find it difficult to pronounce Korean names. 

Koreans may choose an English name that sounds somewhat similar to their given Korean name or they may simply choose a name because they like it. If you are teaching in a school in Korea, be prepared for your students to go through phases of changing their names with each school year!

Staring is not considered rude

If you are white, black, or generally not of East Asian descent, you may occasionally find that people gaze at you for extended periods of time. For example, perhaps you are riding the Seoul subway and you feel that someone is just flat-out staring.

In Korean culture, staring is not as rude as it is in the west. A lot of the time, people are oblivious to the fact that they are doing it.

Do keep in mind that Korea is a largely homogenous country and a lot of locals do not see foreigners very often. They are not being intentionally rude. If someone is staring at you and it is making you feel uncomfortable, just remind yourself it is because you look unique, and don’t let it concern you too much.

Even westerners that live in Korea for extended periods and rarely see foreigners can easily find themselves inadvertently staring at tourists. It is just because they haven’t seen people that looked that way in so long! 

Chuseok (추석) is one of the most important national holidays 

Chuseok (추석) is one of the most important national holidays in Korea. It falls on different dates in September each year and in 2022, it will be celebrated on Saturday the 10th of September, with the 9th to the 12th of September being public holidays.

A lot of people refer to Chuseok as being the Korean answer to thanksgiving but honestly, that is not a good representation of the holiday.

Parting Words

Preparing for culture shock in Korea
Preparing for Culture Shock in Korea

Korea is a  modern country that has taken a lot of cultural influences from the USA. So, although it is in the Far East, it is easy to forget that you are miles away from home and what is familiar.

Do you have any additional questions about South Korea culture and traditions? Have you travelled to South Korea in the past? What did you think? 

I used to live in Seoul while teaching English in Korea. I have explored Korea extensively and can hopefully provide some useful insight into the country. If you need anything, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me. 

Safe travels! Annyeonghaseyo! Melissa xo 


Melissa Douglas

Melissa Douglas is a British Travel Writer and Blogger based in Athens, Greece. She writes for numerous high profile travel publications across the globe - including Forbes Travel Guide, Matador Network, The Times of Israel and The Huffington Post.

4 thoughts on “South Korea Culture and Traditions: Your 2022 Guide”

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