20 Cultural Mistakes to Avoid in Korea

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Source: wordpress

Is it your first time visiting Korea? Having a fresh start here with a new job? To give you a head start, we’ve gathered 20 cultural mistakes to avoid in Korea. By knowing this beforehand, not only will you earn extra respect points for yourself but it also makes a great first impression… oh and this also allows you to avoid the hour long lectures and wrath of angry Ahjummas~

1.Sitting in elderly seats in subways

You are in the subway and you see all the seats being taken apart from the ones at the far end which are reserved for the elderly or women who are pregnant. Even if they are unoccupied I would suggest you leave them empty unless you want a big scolding from an elderly. I remember in a subway once a young woman was sitting on the elderly seats because there were no more seats available. Soon enough an old man comes in and even though there were plenty of other elderly seats available she got scolded (very badly) and was forced to stand up. Trust me, you wouldn’t want to piss off an ahjumma or ahjussi in Korea. It’s not a pleasant experience so do your best to avoid it…

Source: My Sassy Girl

2. Sticking your chopsticks in your rice

Especially when eating with other people, avoid sticking your chopsticks into your rice. In traditional Asian culture (not just Korean), people usually stick incense sticks upright in a bowl of sand at funerals for ancestor worship and it is believed to be food for the spirits. Sticking your chopsticks in a bowl of rice reminds people of that. Are you trying to say your friends at the table are already dead? Of course this is not a fact, more of a superstition. But avoid doing it in case you get a big scolding or uncomfortable looks from your friends and family.

3. Refusing a soju shot with an ahjussi/ahjumma

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So you are in a restaurant with someone much older than you and he or she offers you a shot of Soju or Korean beer with him or her. In Korea this is not a gesture of trying to get you totally wasted, but it’s a sort ritual of respect and friendship. If you do not drink alcohol whatsoever, replace it with water or any soft drink. Rather than the beverage itself, the ritual is seen as most important. Refusing the shot however can be very offending to Koreans as it may look as though you don’t want to be their friend! =(

4. Facing an elder whilst doing a shot

Once accepting the ritual you will have to drink whatever is in your shot glass whether it may be Soju, beer, water etc. When drinking with a senior or an elder make sure you turn your head or back away from anyone higher rank than you as a sign of respect. This ritual is very common when dining out with your work colleagues. Anyone older than you or higher up the ladder should be treated differentially, and a gesture to express that is by turning your head or back away from them.

You’ve done it! Now on to the next 20 work colleagues…

For a more detailed explanation of Korea’s drinking culture, click here!

5. Writing names in red ink

You are writing a birthday card, and the nearest pen you can reach is the red ink pen. The receiving person opens up the card and instead of seeing a happy reaction, the birthday gal (if Korean) will most probably be in shock or offended. Why? There are many superstitions here in Korea, and one of them is writing a person’s name in red ink. By doing that it means they will die soon or you want them to die. This is because a long time ago the names of the deceased were written in red on registers, gravestones and plaques to ward off evil spirits. You can try this out when you write a letter to your ex-lover 😉

For more unusual Korean superstitions click here!

Source: sacethesemicolon.com

6. Blowing your nose at the dinner table

Let’s be honest. Seeing someone at the dinner table blowing their nose is not a pleasant sight right? Especially when they catch a bad cold and it makes a weird gooey noise, it’s enough to put you off from your own food. It also displays poor hygiene as after blowing your nose your hands will be full of germs! When eating with people, it’s best to excuse yourself to the bathroom so that you can handle your business and then wash your hands straight after. Of course, maybe amongst close friends I’m sure they won’t mind.

7. Receiving with one hand

Source: nodeju.com

In Korea this is seen as very important in terms of receiving and giving. Using one hand (especially if it’s with your left hand) is considered to be rude so try and get in a habit of always using both hands to give or receive things. There was an incident with Bill Gates when he shook Korea’s President, Park Geun Hye’s hand with one hand (bad idea) while his left hand was inside his pocket (terrible idea). Anyways it caused him to be heavily criticized by the people and the media and is now being labelled as rude and disrespectful. The ‘two hands’ culture is only important between the interaction of two people for example giving someone a gift, or even pouring someone some water.

Ken Lee
Ken Lee
Born and raised in London UK, and currently residing in Korea, Ken Lum Lee is currently an English Teacher at a middle school in Gwangju and the blogger and photographer behind the Korean lifestyle blog Seoul State of Mind. Ken enjoys travelling around Korea, aiming to capture the unique beauties, discover stories and secret hideouts of Korea. Ken can usually be seen with his camera, which is currently the love of his life, and pigging out in Korean BBQ restaurants. Check out his awesome blog: www.seoulstateofmind.com For regular updates, follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram

54 Comments

  1. Joseph says:

    Thanks for the best advice about cultural mistakes to avoid in Korea. I like this article to much !

  2. weepingwillow says:

    I am… stunned, shocked, at just how SIMILAR this is to German culture. I grew up in a very traditional german society in rural pennsylvania, and this is just… wow… for 2 countries that have not traditionally had contact with each other, who would have guessed they would be so similar??? Some other things with german (pennsylvania-dutch) culture: you ALWAYS address those older than you by last name as a sign of respect, NEVER first name. Children do not sit in the front seats of cars, they are just children (lower in status than adults) and thus must sit in the back, even if there is no one else in the car. Is this also true in Korea???

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  4. dieyb says:

    Encountered #1 when I’ve been to Seoul and Busan for first time last year.

    Two of my friends sitting at elderly seats in subway, then one of the ahjumma/ahjushi asked them to stand-up while pointing at the sign. ㅋㅋㅋㅋ

  5. Fatemeh says:

    It’s really interesting to see how much Iran and Korea have in common in terms of social codes like showing respect for the elders, not wearing shoes at home, not putting your spoon in the the food you eat, using both hands when giving or taking things from someone and …. .

  6. Silvia says:

    I’m currently writing a book where the main place is in Seoul,Korea so you really helped me! I still have a few questions about their reporters and I hope I will find the answers soon …

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