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

Source: WordPress

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

55 Comments

  1. Lorna Mulkey says:

    ..The Korean taxi driver who drove us from Seoul to Suji stole 5 dollars from us! He knew we were foreigners obviously, but he kept the change when he clearly owed us 5 bucks. (the charge was 30,400 Won and we gave him 35,000….he refused to give us a receipt when we asked for our change)

    Apparently not all Koreans enjoy the ‘no tipping’ policy of their country.

    • Lindsay says:

      I had to take a taxi once from Seoul all the way to Cheonan, as I had gotten in on a late flight and the busses, subway, and KTX had all stopped running. We agreed on 120,000 Won and when we got to Cheonan the taxi driver insisted on 150,000. That jerk got a 25% tip but it was too early in the morning to argue. Still better than paying for a hotel in most places in Seoul. ~_~

  2. Two things:

    6. Blowing your nose at the dinner table

    When I eat spicy food my nose has a tendency to run. Is it okay to at least hold up a napkin/tp to my nose so that it doesn’t start running down my face?

    15. Talking loudly on the bus or subway

    This one I know I’ll have to really work on. I’m often told here at home (Texas!) that I’m a loud talker. If I’m considered loud here I can only imagine how loud I’ll be considered there!

    • Minjae says:

      6. Q.Blowing your nose at the dinner table. When I eat spicy food my nose has a tendency to run. Is it okay to at least hold up a napkin/tp to my nose so that it doesn’t start running down my face?
      A. You have to go to the washroom if you can’t really hold it anymore….

    • Darth Babaganoosh says:

      Wipe it, but don’t blow. No problem.

      Don’t worry about being loud. The subways are full of people who don’t bother to be soft-voiced. And if they have a cellphone, it’s worse. No different than any other country I’ve lived in or visited.

  3. Justine says:

    In the Philippines or any Filipino household (Unless they are americanized) when guests come to the house and the hosts offer food, you eat. And when you leave it’s polite to take some leftovers home if there is any. And for Filipinos who are young it is respectful to “bless” the elders which means the younger one takes the hand of the elder and brings it up to their forehead. It doesn’t mean you bless them, but they are giving you their blessings.

  4. zahra says:

    what about people wo doen’t drink at all i mean soju is alcohol what do we do then ????????

  5. Ken Lee says:

    @zahra Like the article mentions if you don’t drink, it’s possible to exchange the soju/beer with water or a soft drink ^^ Rather than the liquor the actions of the ritual is more important =D

    • MJ says:

      Ken, would you please give an example of how you would make that exchange?

      And also, how would you excuse yourself to the washroom to blow your nose since it’s rude to leave before the elders? =)

  6. Sam Tsai says:

    Wow this was a really interesting article, thanks.
    Actually a lot of these are a lot like manners in Chinese and other Asian countries’ cultures

  7. Marinho says:

    Item number 18 is so….outdated…but, it’s the korean society…I liked that article.

  8. Marisa says:

    In Indonesia, when you come to someone’s home and they give you drink (usually it’s a glass of hot tea or mineral water), you should empty the glass.

  9. Novino Rossi says:

    What really make me so interseted about korean culture is JEONG, kind of loving rules ? or someting ?
    this article really helpful anyway.

  10. Faleh says:

    Ughh now I know why, So one day i was buying some vegetables/fruits from a local old lad with a cart and when I payed her I added a little bit as a tip and she refused it so bad and got mad for what I did.

  11. Senda says:

    In Tunisia or most Arab countries, if you complement someone on something they own, they will feel obligated to give it to you (unless it’s something super valuable). Kinda like #14 😛 But it’s seen as rude to refuse it.

  12. Mango says:

    Well… Tipping is cultural in France, so it’s going to be really bothersome to restrain from leaving a lil gift on the table while leaving a bar or a restaurant. The issue is not really about saving money then… :(

  13. Kristin says:

    Hi Keith!
    I’m a young student female from Romania, Europa. (if you ever hear about this country !? ) I must say that I think Korea is one of the most beautiful and original countries! I really like this country and its traditions which includes the food that seems to be amazing. One day I hope I’ll visit Korea, rather then, I’m sure I’ll do this someday.
    However, I needed to tell you how wonderful your site is. Honestly, I always tought with fear at being alone in a country where you can’t be understood ( I mean language) and also a country with such a different culture. But your site make it seems so easy! And I also like your good mood and optimism. You can give things simplicity and colour. I found your site watching the video “Are korean people friendly? “. It was really funny! Keep up to good work, I’ll still follow your posts. Annyeonghi gaseyo 😀

  14. Kristin says:

    Your comment…

    • Tamara Andre says:

      I’m totally in love with Korean culture and Koreans in general. I FINALLY got my boyfriend to take me there for a holiday, and it was amazing. As a fan of Kdrama, I really wanted to get to know Korean culture. We spent a month there and it didn’t begin easily as my Swedish boyfriend sort of didnt want to go but just came because I wanted to. At first he seemed to do everything wrong. He refused Soju when offered it from an Ahjussi who is one of my father’s business partners. He walked into their home and had to be reminded to take off his shoes. He used his left hand when accepting things, and I had to remind him to turn his head when drinking A bit sad because he is half Asian and should have known better. Finally an Ahjumma scolded him up and down and scared the hell out of him. After that he began to suddenly “remember” some Korean customs and began to behave and by the end of the first week we had fallen in love with all things Korean.

      Such an amazing country. Everything is high tech, and then suddenly you find a toilet that isn’t. LOL Anyway, I know this is too late for the conversation just wanted to add my two cents.

  15. jody46 says:

    I guess I would of never guessed a few so I am very happy you told us if we go to korea. The tipping in other countries like mine the United States is a thing of saying thank you, you did a very good job in serving us. Has nothing to do with greed. The waitresses and people who serve you in usa don’t even get minimum wage because they rely on tips for their job. That is considered part of their pay and they have to give parts ot their tips to management sometimes as I understand unless that has changed. So That one is good to mentioned. We consider that an insult not to leave a tip if you are polite and do your job while waiting on a customer, a complete opposite of korean customs. I am not a waitress or a someone who waits on someone but that is how it is here. It is telling them you were bad at their job. No 18 in the states we don’t usually care about the shoulders or usually the skirts but the conservative people might think if you where to short a skirt or shorts you are looking for sex, the shoulder thing never bothers them. shoulders isn’t sexual here but legs or skirts almost showing off underwear or maybe going up to far if frown upon sometimes. women wear tank tops all the time here as casual wear and no one thinks about it so why would they mind showing a dress with showing shoulders, they care more of frontal view cleavage showing to much breast or showing to much of your top part of your leg or butt underwear area. I love asian culture and study it and didn’t know about the tips at korea and the shoulders in Korea or drinking behind the elder. I knew that you should drink what is given if you know the person and they are your boss or an elder. Didn’t know about turning around. I know the asians customs treat their dead and elders differently and Iove that about the asian countries. we in the usa do not usually ever have shrines in our house for our dead relative that pass on ever. I think that is probably more japanese I am not sure about Korea but I know you have good customs with your elderly. hmm as much as i watch asian horror films I should of known about the red ink but once you mentioned it I knew why you don’t do it and I wouldn’t know why they would. we do not write in red ink here usually. It is either black or Blue for good ethic hit for people, for friends if you only have a red pen you do the whole thing in red. We never would think of think of them thinking we did it because we want them dead but if you send someone black roses that is what it means here in the states. black roses mean death here so you do not want black roses sent to you. I hoped I helped on the usa side you helped extremely on the korean side and I loved ‘jeong’ we should have that here, I love sharing and that is priceless!!! thank you Jody

  16. Keith says:

    I’m sorry but I think Korea sucks with some reasons

    1. Why do we have to receive an alcohol drink from elders and cannot refuse it?

    2. Why shell we share our foods, (you know you can buy/get your own foods that you want)

    3. Why can’t we wear our shoes in the house?

    For another reason I don’t get why the ladies and girls (female) in Korea are kneeling down when they are trying to sit on floor. Anyway, I don’t get this passage and I am still struggling with Korean culture

    • Minjae says:

      You were not supposed to say that our Culture sucks, you can just say “I have problems with your culture”…. I’m very offended with your comment but i’ll answer it…

      1. Q.Why do we have to receive an alcohol drink from elders and cannot refuse it?
      A. Just to pay respect…

      2. Q.Why shell we share our foods, (you know you can buy/get your own foods that you want)
      A. We should share our food, This is because in Korea it is a ‘sharing’ culture. It is a special concept in which Koreans call ‘jeong’ and it is a special kind of love between the people and society. If you don’t share you will be seen as a little greedy and have little or no ‘jeong’. ..

      3. Q. Why can’t we wear our shoes in the house?
      A. We want to be clean and because we Sit down on the floor to eat and We also sleep on the floor…

      I think your culture is not very good as our culture, Why? Because you are asking these questions…

      • Tina says:

        I remeber when the first time my korean teacher asked me to drink beer with her. I didn’t know what to do, what to say, but still we drunk together,but I felt a little shy. Now I understand that I did well :) Actually Korean culture is very very interesting and amazing. I really hope I can experience this once!!! Thank you for all this information!

      • Darth Babaganoosh says:

        He’s obviously (obvious to me, maybe not to you) not a native English speaker and chose his English words poorly. I can say the same about every Korean I’ve ever taught, but I don’t get offended by them since I’m aware of what they meant even if they did not know the proper way to express it. As a non-native English speaker yourself, you should be aware of this and give other non-native English speakers a break.

      • Darth Babaganoosh says:

        And saying his culture is not as “good” as yours simply because he asks a question? Talk about offensive.

    • Antman says:

      Imagine your guest decides to walk all over your sofa, bed, and dinner table with their shoes on, muddifying everything in their path. You ask them to stop and they whine “well in my country,…blah blah blah”

      Imagine you boss gives you a gift of fine portuguese wine bottled in 1977 and wrapped up in gold packaging. But you shake your head and say “no thanks. I dont drink”

      Imagine you you havent eaten for 3 days and you ask your bestest friend for a popcorn from their extra large popcorm deluxe bag. But you get instead “well, you can buy your own…”

      You get the point lol

      • Bear says:

        I think wearing shoes in someone’s house is never a good idea, unless you have permission to wear those from the household.

        However, the scenarios/examples you’ve listed seems out of place of what this article suggests.

        “Imagine you boss gives you a gift of fine portuguese wine bottled in 1977 and wrapped up in gold packaging. But you shake your head and say ‘no thanks. I don’t drink’ ” this scenario isn’t the same as refusing your boss that you cannot drink alcohol in a restaurant. Because if you receives alcohol in a gift form, then you don’t need to drink it right away. But when you are offered alcohol from your boss in a restaurant scenario, then chances are you need to take the alcohol right away. But what if you are allergic to alcohol? What if you need to drive home later? There are many reasons why one cannot take alcohol so why can’t one refuse it? If your elder still need to force alcohol onto you even though you got a pretty good reason not to drink it, then doesn’t that mean elder disrespect you in a way? I think this is a good point to talk about since in collectivistic culture, respect is shown in an obeying way, while in individualistic culture, respect is shown by understanding.

        “Imagine you you havent eaten for 3 days and you ask your bestest friend for a popcorn from their extra large popcorm deluxe bag. But you get instead ‘well, you can buy your own…’ “…well this scenario is very different from what the article mentioned, you are talking about sharing food with your best friend, and more importantly, you’ve asked your friend to share food with you! This is completely different with sharing food with your co-workers! Not to mention, when you buy those potato chips, no one asks if they can have some too voluntarily!!! In western cultures, sharing is common among people who are close (if you are close to your co-workers, then sure sharing is no problem), but sharing is uncommon among people who are not really close together (like co-workers who you’ve worked together for only for a few days, and didn’t talk much).

        I don’t think any culture sucks or whatsoever. But maybe from different standpoint and different backgrounds, the scope of seeing things are quite different because our values are different. There are some pros and cons for every culture, so let’s not saying which ones are better or which ones are worse. Let’s respect the cultural differences and learn why people from different culture do the things they do.

  17. sahar says:

    all the world have their culture and when foreigners come to another country of course they have their culture that cant change even in another country like we dont drink so both of them must have their way politely .

  18. Cameron says:

    Do Koreans eat rice with a spoon or chopsticks?

  19. Jennifer says:

    Even after living in Korea for some time, I could never figure out how to fully manage how to deal with #3 when some old Korean offers a soju shot and I really just don’t want soju cause it’d make me sick. How would you suggest going about this when there is a (often times) language barrier involved so they don’t get offended?

    • Ssong says:

      In these days, young people tend to just get a Soju and put it on the table, showing that they are respectful by receiving. Some people would scold them for it, however, the culture is changing slowly; people began to hate being forced by someone to drink alcohol.

      • Luana says:

        That’s a relief to hear, because my body doesn’t tolerate alcohol, and if I ever visit South Korean in the future, there’s no way I can drink alcohol. I’d get sick and faint, not a pleasant event… :(

  20. Lydia says:

    Wow, for number 20, where I come from, Québec, we are expected to tip. If we don’t, the person you haven’t tipped will probably give the stare of death or whine even though it is not an obligatory thing to do. It would be something to have to get used to since I have a habit of tipping more if I am very satisfied with the service I got.

  21. chris says:

    korean people are just pathetic and has no moral value. specially when doing business. they want free and dont want to pay for anything. how can you do business for free>?

  22. Luis Alfaro says:

    I am a Spanish speaker, living in Korea couple of years already. I would like to know where I can find some translation companies, I am freelancer. Please help !!!

  23. Rob Green says:

    Beckoning people with hand gestures. I live in Hawaii and we have a large Asian population and it only takes one wrong gesture with a finger or hand to make someone look at you and ask “Are you calling me or a dog?” I was told when you make the beckoning gesture to call someone over it is supposed to be with the palm down cause you only call dogs or other animals with the palm facing upwards.

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  25. willem kruger says:

    I worked in a hogwan before and there it was uncommon for foreigners to eat with co-workers or the kids. Maybe it was preferable but it seemed ok for everyone. I also stayed with. Korean family so it wasn’t a problem for them if we sometimes didn’t share or so cause we knew each other and were pretty close.

  26. Darth Babaganoosh says:

    Rule 8 doesn’t apply only to Korea. Many of my former students were surprised to hear Canadians don’t wear their shoes in the house either. Koreans don’t want dirt in their house, and Canadians don’t want snow in theirs. Shoes and boots come off at the entrance, and you walk around in your socks.

    As for drinking culture, sometimes a cross-cultural misunderstanding can be funny. In Korea, if the glass is empty, the person pouring will fill it immediately (you will never have an empty glass on the table). Of course, where I come from, if someone pours you a drink, you must drink it immediately as a sign of thanks and appreciation.

    My first week in Korea, a student’s parents took me to dinner to say thank you for teaching their daughter:

    The father pours me a shot of soju.
    As a sign of thanks, I drink it immediately.
    It’s empty, so he pours another shot.
    As a sign of thanks, I drink it immediately.
    It’s empty, so he pours another shot.
    As a sign of thanks, I drink it immediately.
    It’s empty, so he pours another shot.
    As a sign of thanks, I drink it immediately.
    It’s empty, so he pours another shot.
    I quickly throw my hand over the glass and tell him no more.

    When I tell him why I kept drinking, he laughed.
    When he told me why he kept pouring, I laughed.

    Cross-cultural wires got crossed, but we both had a laugh.

    Of course, this was right before teaching my evening classes that night, and after having 7 (8?) shots of soju in the span of 2 minutes, well, let’s just say I couldn’t teach that night.

  27. Jalil says:

    Good article. Thanks for sharing…

  28. Jaymin says:

    I’m aware of all of these and agree with them.

    Except, I don’t know about touching elderly’s head and showing the bottom of someone’s foot to someone.

    Those sound like Southeast Asian customs. Like in Thailand.
    I have never ever encountered those two situations in Korea.

    And I think it may just be uncomfortable to touch any adult’s head in any country…
    I can’t imagine someone coming up to me and putting their fingers in my hair.

  29. Pecan says:

    This is very funny stuff.

    I guess it depends on where you are from, but I don’t know people who blow their nose at the dinner table or who where shoes indoors.

    Where are the people from that do these types of things?

    Why would anyone stick chopsticks in a bowl of rice and leave it there?

    Eating before others is rude anywhere, is it not?

    If you were to go to a restaurant with friends or family and your entree mistakenly gets served before the rest of your table…most civilized people will wait.

    When you go to a friend’s or family’s house, you aren’t going to show up empty-handed.

  30. ukasya akbar says:

    I sat at elderly seat once in subway. If in my country that seat called priority seat. You still can seat if there is no empty seat. However, if elderly came you should give seat to ’em. At that time, I sat there because still have a lot empty elderly seat. Then this old ahjussi start mad at me and talking in korea which I dont have any idea what its mean haha. Then I just said sorry and stand up. Not a really good experience. Good moral value though.

  31. Joseph says:

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

  32. 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???

  33. […] 20 Cultural Mistakes to Avoid in Korea […]

  34. Rhia says:

    How do you decline food that is offered to you when it is a genuine health reason? I can have dairy, but only in small amounts. If I start eating it, and then stop and they try to give me more… would it be confusing if I then rejected it? I truly enjoy the food but I don’t want to feel ill for the rest of the day when I am with the host.

  35. Özlem says:

    I just realiced this but the Korean culture and the türkish culture are pretty similar (besides the alcohol thing) ☺ kinda makes me happy knowing that there are other cultures who care for such things so much too.
    My mom always scoldes me whenever i cross my legs in front of older people 🙈

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