Korean Customs & Etiquette Tips: What to REALLY Expect When You Visit
Whenever I travel to a new country I research the social etiquette and rules that I should follow during my visit. I’m very conscious of being a respectful traveller and never want to upset someone because of my ignorance. I was the same when I came to Korea the first time, and I’ve always tried to be in-the-know regarding social expectations while living here. There are countless articles about the dos and don’ts while staying in Korea, so it’s not hard to inform yourself on how to be polite here. However, a lot of these articles sensationalise and overcomplicate Korea’s etiquette rules, so I’m going to share with you the REAL rules and manners you should uphold while visiting Korea.
Before I get into the nitty gritty of what you should really expect of Korea in terms of social rules, it bears one thing to say. You are not Korean. Well, you’re likely not a Korea-born, Korea-raised Korean, especially if you’re just visiting on holiday. As such, it’s highly likely that you will not be expected to stick to all the rules of mealtimes, transport and clothing. It also needs to be said that not all Koreans follow these rules. Many articles on Korean etiquette are very generalised and base their points on an old, traditional viewpoint of life, when Confucian ideals were far more strongly upheld. Korean society is changing and the young generations of Koreans are not sticklers for the drinking and clothing rules as you may have been led to believe.
Food & Drink
Every country has its own set of rules when it comes to mealtimes or ‘the sesh’. Korea is no exception. Communal eating and considerate drinking practices are big on the peninsula, but fear not; they’re not as scary and complicated (or important) as they might seem.
Don’t stick your chopsticks in your rice
At Korean jesa (a ceremony to honour a family’s ancestors) a table of offerings is laid out with meat, fruit, vegetables and rice, among other things. As an offering to the ancestors, a spoon or a pair of chopsticks is stuck straight up in the rice, which is why it’s said that you should never do this in Korea. However, while most people are not in the habit of making a utensils-holder out of their food, you’re not going to be arrested for doing this. More than anything, they get in the way and could be a hazard (have you seen The Dark Knight?!) while maneuvering the many dishes on the table.
Slurping soup and noodles
You’ve likely heard that slurping your soup or noodles is a way of being polite and showing your appreciation to the chef. I’m not here to deny that, rather giving a warning about and add further explanation on this noisy food phenomenon. Korean dishes, especially soups and stews, are often served in the same bowl that it was cooked in (a dolsot), so the food is going to be a little bit more than piping hot. Slurping the food as it goes in helps to cool it down, which is why you’re going to hear it happening pretty often. As such, be aware that restaurants in Korea, particularly those frequented by Koreans, will be a little heavier on the eating sounds, so if you have misophonia of the food variety then you come warned.
If your name is Joey Tribbiani and you’re reading this article then I’m sorry, but Korea is not the place for you. Korean people share food. In fact, a great number of their dishes are made and served in a large pan and eaten communally. And if the main meal itself isn’t for sharing, then the side dishes certainly will be. This isn’t a problem for most people, in fact it’s something that I quite like about mealtime culture in Korea. However, if you’re not a sharer for whatever reason frivolous or medical, then take this as a warning. Though it would be a great shame for you to miss out on all the culinary delights that Korea has to offer, so this can be worked around quite easily. Simply ask for separate dishes (which are in fact usually supplied automatically when eating a meal like this) and serve yourself first, so don’t be too worried. If it comes to it, there are a huge number of foreign food restaurants around, especially here in Seoul, so you’ll never go hungry.
Turn away from your seniors while drinking
So you’re new in Korea and you’re having a few drinks with your colleagues? Or maybe you’re visiting a friend and having a meal with them and their friends or siblings? Lots of guides to Korean culture will tell you that it’s a cardinal sin to not turn away from people older than you while you all drink your soju, But that’s not always true. As with most Korean drinking customs, these only really apply during formal settings. So don’t worry about turning away, or about always pouring their drink, or about only drinking with others. And if anyone says otherwise, refer them to the foreword of this article.
NEVER show your chest or shoulders
Unsurprisingly, all the rules that you hear about regarding clothing rules in South Korea are directed towards women, and this one seems to be the biggest of the bunch. Many people will tell you that you should NEVER ever wear a top or dress that shows your chest or shoulders. Now while it’s true that South Korea is a relatively conservative country, this ‘rule’ is frequently blown out of proportion. When I arrived in Korea over three years ago it was quite applicable to the way that people dressed – I would feel uncomfortable going out in the hot weather in a strappy summer dress – however nowadays it’s quite noticeable that things are moving on, and necklines are moving lower. You won’t find boob-baring clothes like those you might see in the UK, even on nights out, but it’s certainly less frowned-upon than it used to be. As with everywhere, there is of course a time and a place for every item of clothing. But as long as you’re not being disrespectful, go ahead and wear that dress with plunging cleavage, or that spaghetti strap top. It’s HOT here in summer, and too humid to be thinking about what other people think.
Skirts can be as short as you like
One word: yep. You can wear a skirt as short as you like and it won’t be a talking point. As styles tend to do so, they are currently leaning more towards longer skirt lengths, but if you want to pop on a T-shirt and mini-skirt or buttock-brushing shorts then you do you, pal. Let those bum cheeks breathe. (Again: time and place.)
Temples have a dress code
As I said in the first point, on showing chest and shoulder, there is a time and a place for skimpy clothes. This statement naturally implies that there also ISN’T a time and place for them, and that place is the temple, and that time is when you visit one. Allie explains more about it in this post on Korean Buddhist temple etiquette, but the general rules are: simple, plain clothing that covers the chest and knees. You won’t be turned away should you not be dressed appropriately as Buddhist temples are generally very accepting and welcoming to all people, but it’s always best to be polite and respectful of a faith and its requests, especially if it’s not your own.
No hot drinks on buses
A couple of years ago it became a rule, in Seoul at least, that you’re not allowed to take hot drinks in an open cup on a bus. Whether you’re a tea drinker, a coffee slurper, or maybe you prefer a little bit more– it doesn’t matter. No takeaway cups are allowed on buses. They’re a safety hazard on a moving vehicle. And if you try to test this rule? Don’t be surprised if you find yourself walking to your next destination. The drivers have a right to refuse you entry onto the bus. Take a lockable flask with you and keep it in your bag for the duration of your ride, or you’ll be hitting the pavement and your drink will, too.
Take off your backpack on the subway
Imagine this: It’s 6pm and you’re getting on the subway. It’s rush hour, and you’re all packed in tight, but the guy behind you won’t remove his backpack. It’s jabbing you in the back, or maybe the front, if you’re unlucky enough to get wedged in that way. Wouldn’t it be much easier if he popped it on the floor at his feet? Or perhaps on one of those handy shelves above the seats that some subway trains have? I’ll answer that question for you: It would. So next time you’re on a busy subway, remove your backpack for the sake of others. There’s a reason why this is included on those funny animated subway rules videos you see on the screens while waiting for your train. (This rule also applies to the bus, funnily enough.)
Steer clear of the pink seats
Ahhh, the pink seats. They’re a highly debated topic here in Korea, by Koreans and non-Koreans alike. You can find them in every subway carriage, and on some buses too. They’re seats that were made to be occupied by pregnant people, and here on What’s Han Your Mind we believe it should stay that way. Where possible, should you come across one of these seats and you are not in need of it, no matter how busy the train is, we implore you to leave it free. Just because a pregnancy is not visible does not mean it is not there. Nor does it mean that the seat is not needed, and some people may feel uncomfortable asking another person to give up their seat for them, especially if they’re not showing.
A note on invisible illnesses: Should you need a seat on the subway or bus due to having a visible or invisible illness you are 100% entitled to sit in any priority seat.
Be mindful of your volume
There is nothing worse than getting onto a busy bus or subway and end up sitting next to the one person yelling on their phone, or in front of the group of people yelling about something together. Unfortunately, I can easily say that the majority of time there is a ‘loud’ person on public transport it’s a non-Korean (or an old person). It’s not something we think about on a day-to-day basis because it doesn’t apply in our ‘home’ countries, but the tones and pitches in our voice are different to those of Koreans. It’s purely biological – our voice boxes and bones structures are constructed differently – but because of the different sound of our voices (and often because of the different language) we stand out among the standard Korean hubbub. Sometimes we are actually louder than others, and sometimes it just sounds that way because it’s different, but we should be mindful of keeping quieter on public transport. Of course, there will always be those people with their knickers in a twist who hate the sound of anyone else’s voice but their own, but generally if you try to speak quietly everyone will be happy and we can all go back to staring at our phones or complaining about the summer heat again.
We should always be mindful of staying respectful when visiting another country. There are countless outdated and/or exaggerated posts online explaining things you should and shouldn’t do in Korea, but here I’ve tried to give you a realistic look at the customs you should really expect (or not), and I’ve given you a few tips to make your stay in Korea as comfortable as possible.
Are there any other myths about korean etiquette that you’d like busting? Or maybe you want some advice on something I’ve not covered in this post? Let me know in a comment or tell me over on Facebook or Instagram!