If you’re visiting South Korea as a foreigner, Koreans will often overlook any minor faux pas you make, knowing that you didn’t buck local customs on purpose. Koreans often talk about “sincerity” and “intention”: sometimes, what you do is less important than what you mean. There are nevertheless some actions that you’ll need to avoid.
Firstly, South Korea is a hierarchical society. This means that everyone is expected to behave in a certain way towards elders or organizational superiors. Some words and actions will be acceptable in front of your contemporaries or inferiors, but never in front of superiors. You could cause offense not by actively being rude, but by simply not using the appropriate level of speech, or doing something considered rude for someone in your inferior position.
For example, a Korean friend of similar age might teach you to greet her by saying “annyeong.” But this is banmal, a lower speech level. Your elders or superiors won’t appreciate being spoken to this way: You’ll need to use a higher speech level in honorific form and say “annyeonghaseyo.” It is also considered polite to bow, at least slightly, while saying this. Don’t go overboard; a nice 50-degree bow will do. Appropriate speech levels need applying to all verbs; even some nouns have distinct honorific forms that should be used.
Anyway, the Korean language can be a minefield of faux pas if misused: If you decide to learn it, get ready for a year or so of hard graft [British slang for ‘hard work,’ not corruption. – ed.] before you start approaching conversational level.
Here are some more things you shouldn’t do.
Leave your shoes on when entering a home
Though most modern homes have Western-style beds, dining tables, chairs and sofas, South Korea remains a floor-based culture. Most homes are kept warm by underfloor heating, so the floor is a great place to sit or sleep in winter. Koreans never wear outdoor shoes at home. It’s pretty hard to forget this, as you’ll see everyone else’s cast-off shoes inside the door when you enter a home.
In most public buildings, people leave their shoes on: Outside the home, certain restaurants and bars are the only places you’re likely to have to take your shoes off. It’s easy if you just watch what everyone else does. And try to make sure you have clean socks on.
Leave chopsticks standing in your rice
This is thought to be inauspicious, because upright chopsticks resemble incense sticks at a funeral or a wake. When not holding your chopsticks, lay them down on the table by your bowl or stick them behind your ear (one of those suggestions was a joke).
Blow your nose at the table
Even if you use a handkerchief, Koreans will not appreciate this. It’s quite possible that a spicy Korean dish will make your nose run a bit. If this happens, sniffing does not generally annoy people, and you can wipe away anything that actually trickles out of your nose with a tissue. But if you really need to take the nuclear option, make your way to the toilet or outdoors before detonating.
Write someone else’s name in red ink
Let’s face it, no one uses pens any more. But if your phone battery is dead, and you’re using a pen to write someone else’s name, and that person is watching you, and the pen is red, STOP! This is considered a faux pas. Use black ink, or blue if you insist. There’s a widespread cultural superstition that writing someone’s name in red means they will die.
Give or receive objects with one hand
When in a formal setting or among elders/seniors, it’s considered rude to give or receive anything with one hand. Use both. This applies to business cards too, of course. And soju shots.
Make public displays of affection
Kissing your partner in the street, playful ear biting, making love on the bus or subway: These are all things that open-minded Westerners do on a daily basis. But many South Koreans consider such actions taboo. Things have changed a lot in recent years, and you do sometimes see young couples embracing in the street today. And holding hands is fine. But South Korea has an abundance of cheap motels where locals take things to the next level behind closed doors, and if feeling frisky, you should do the same.
Here are some social hierarchy-specific Don’ts:
It’s considered rude to smoke blatantly in front of superiors, in age or social position, maybe because blowing out smoke comes across as a defiant or confrontational gesture. (It is, however, allowed if one’s superior gives express permission.) Unfortunately, an element of sexism also remains when it comes to smoking: A young woman smoking in public risks being berated by a disapproving older man or woman.
Strong expression of disagreement or contradiction
Elders and superiors are not used to being contradicted, even if they’re obviously wrong about something, especially in a forthright way and in front of other people. In South Korea, this counts as a loss of face to some degree. Don’t expect a positive response. If there’s something you just can’t accept, try approaching the person in question later on, preferably in private, and making your point with less force.
Sitting cross-legged in front of elders/superiors
Most South Koreans seem to have relaxed about this one these days, but in a stiff and formal setting you still might want to kneel instead.
Start eating before a senior person or elder
Korean etiquette dictates that diners must wait until the oldest or most senior person at the table picks up her or his chopsticks first. Of course, this rule loosens up in familiar settings; children eat before their parents at the dinner table, fathers before grandfathers, etc, but look around your specific context and judge for yourself whether it’s a loose or strict setting. If you’re at a business meeting, it’s probably safer to wait. Unless you’re the CEO.
Sipping alcohol while facing an elder
When drinking with superiors or elders, turn your upper body and head away to one side while taking a sip with both hands. Again, many South Koreans are more relaxed about this today, but it shows respect if you do it until they ask you to stop. You’ll notice that when offering cheers, the younger people at a table will turn to one side before imbibing.
Take all these Don’ts with a grain of salt. There are plenty of couples publicly displaying affection while smoking with an elder and arguing heatedly about the future of LGBT rights in South Korea (maybe an LGBT debate is us being too optimistic). Our suggestions are tentative and will hopefully help guide you through the maze of cultural norms in South Korea. Good luck.
Ben Jackson authored this article.
Cover image: Drinking soju ‘the right’ way. (Source: Graham Hills via Flickr, CC BY 2.0)