20 Cultural Mistakes to Avoid in Korea – Page 2 – Seoulistic

20 Cultural Mistakes to Avoid in Korea

8. Wearing shoes at someone’s home

For obvious reasons wearing shoes inside someone’s home is very unhygienic. Koreans spend a lot of time cleaning their floors because the Korean lifestyle is usually centred around the floor. Usually dining tables are very low to the ground as traditionally dinner is eaten by sitting on the floor. Even today, most people sleep on the floor, so it is important to keep it hygienic and clean. In Korean houses or apartments the entrance is usually lower than the rest of the home. This design allows for all dirty, wet things to be left in the entrance so that the house stays clean.

9. Eating first at the dinner table

Source: worldofstock.com

Do you have times where you are so hungry the only thing you can think of is sitting down and start munching down your food? In Korea, unless you are eating with your closest friends, you should not even pick up your chopsticks unless the oldest person at the table picks up his or hers. The oldest person at the tables must eat first and then you are able to start eating. Respect to elders has always been a very strict and important tradition in Korea. Therefore, if you are extremely hungry, I’m afraid you’re going to have to be a little patient until the oldest person lift up their chopsticks.

10. Pouring water for yourself only whilst eating with your friends or family

Yes, that’s right. Pouring water for yourself only will look as though you only care about yourself and think less of others. Before pouring yourself a drink, check everyone’s cups and if they need refilling pour water for them first. Remember to pour water for the oldest one at the table first before others. If you do that, the Koreans will be very impressed and you would make a very good impression of yourself. If you get enough brownie points from the Koreans I’m sure they would want to take you out for dinner next time. Their treat of course =D

11. Not setting up utensils

From a very young age, Korean parents teach and discipline their children dinner etiquettes and traditional customs. This includes them preparing the table before dinner which involves setting up chopsticks, spoons, bowls, side dishes, napkins, pouring water in every cup etc. As foreigners, Koreans don’t really expect you to already know all of the traditional customs, but this is again another chance to make a good impression as well as to become more culturally enriched.

Source: visitkorea.or.kr

12. Getting up and leaving the table before elders do

If you finish your food early I’m afraid you might have to wait until everybody finishes before leaving the table. If you finish early and wait you might give others the impression you are waiting for them to finish, hence they will eat faster. To avoid this misunderstanding try to keep at a similar pace along with other people so that you don’t finish your meal too early. However if you have kept at a steady pace and finished early, place your chopsticks and spoon on the table and wait until the elder gives you permission to leave the table.

13. Touching an elder or someone at a higher rank than you on the head or shoulder

Especially on the head or shoulders! When Koreans touch someone’s head or shoulders, it is usually to a child or someone younger than them. If you touch a senior on the head or shoulder, it can be very down-grading, impolite and disrespectful. It is as though you are treating them like a child!

For now, I guess you should keep your touchy-feely hands to yourself. Even between friends, touching the opposite sex can be quite an intimate action. Therefore to avoid any misunderstanding avoid free touching in general unless you have the hots for someone. 😉

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

65 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???

    • Hur says:

      weepingwillow, I have no idea what you are talking about. German culture is not even close to Korean culture. You don’t address elders with their last name, you just address your friends and relatives with their first name. This has nothing to do with age.

      • Spackp says:

        Not entirely correct. You address everybody in the professional environment or people that are way older than older than you with the exception of friends and relatives with their last name. If your old then nobody gives a crap. You can do both to everybody. Children are addressed to with their last name in circumstances that require formality for everyone like contracts.

        But yeah, German culture is very different from Korean culture. Almost nothing on this list can be applied to Germany.

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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 …. .

    • Soy says:

      Iran and Korea ? really?
      let’s start from the beginning when Iran stop killing people because the gay or women!

  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 …

  7. Spackp says:

    weepingwillow: Not correct. You address everybody in the professional environment or people that are way older than older than you with the exception of friends and relatives with their last name. If your old then nobody gives a crap. You can do both to everybody. Children are addressed to with their last name in circumstances that require formality for everyone like contracts.

    But yeah, German culture is very different from Korean culture. Almost nothing on this list can be applied to Germany.

  8. Kin Modesto Sugai says:

    Well, for Brazil, we have many cultural traces that can vary with the region. Mostly, the Brazilian greeting is a hug or a kiss on the cheek for girls( girls+ girls or boys+girls) and a handshake for boys(boys+boys) unless they are close( hugs are common). Brazilians are really intimate with everything, so it’s common to have a lot of physical contact, even with strangers. There isn’t much difference in the treatment of older people and the younger ones in general, except the fact that they have priority on the things. The families are more united as in affection and caring. People are always late for meetings and, when you are punctual, there is a possibility to receive bad glares, even though for work that doesn’t count. Football is a important matter to Brazilians, so, if you are a stranger, it’s better for you to get used to get invited to pubs just to watch a match and choose your time wisely. It’s like a life or death decision. Seriously. A lunch meeting can turn into a day meal. Usually they are long, especially the ones with sea food and barbecue. You can go to your friend’s house for lunch and only get out past midnight with JUST one meal. Talk with people looking in their eyes. It’s a sign of respect and trust. Lastly, it’s important to warn you about the slums, especially the Rio’s, because they have their own rules. It’s better to you to stay out of them as much as possible. One tip is to, if you ever step in there by car, to open your windows for them to see than you are not from there or with the policy. If you don’t do this, you are as much as dead, considering they didn’t shoot you when you entered. People who live there have a system that condemn whoever commits a crime in the region, so they are pretty much safe. They kill all the criminals when they step out of the jail.

  9. Emy says:

    Great. I’m currently compiling a list of some strange or interesting cultures and these just came at the right time.

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  11. Ulises says:

    I sit in the elderly seats al the time and I as soon as I see an old people, pregnant woman or somebody that n eds the seat I stand up, never had a problem or somebody told me to stand up. You can refuse to drink no problem, blowing your nose at the table… BS! Some Koreans are experts in the art of spitting is really disgusting to eat and the guy right in front of you is giving you de runny nose sound over and over. So DO BLOW YOUR NOSE PLEASE. Sticking you por chopsticks in the rice is no problem, that is more Japanese I guess , can’t tell you how much disgusting things I’ve seen that old Koreans and young Koreans as well they do at the table. Please stop picturing the Koran people as hermetic non tolerable closed people, they are quite the contrary, they are open, fun and very curious.

  12. Jason says:

    They are aggressive and rude.

  13. Daniela says:

    What about waiting to order or for your food in the restaurant? I had a strange experience during my stay in Seoul when one Lady after inviting us to the table she ignore us for more then 20min. She surpose to take the order and bring us the food, but instead she evoid just our table and we had to wait for a second Lady. The Restaurant was not full and the next customers finished eating before we make the order. What it’s custom to do in this case in Corea? Go …no go?
    Situation 2: We have order but our Boy forgot completely our order. We had our drinks but no food. After 30min. ( romanian & german patience limits) I get the Boy attention with an questioning look! He start apologizing and bowing so many times that we instantly start smiling and forgot the incident. We forgive him right away … but we made a bet too. Sorry, we couldn’t help it. I bet that he will not come to our table or around it till the end of the evening. I won off course. Custom in Europe is that after a service mistake like this, the Service Personal and expecialy the person how made the mistake should give full attention to his customers trying to recover the mistake. In same european countries after having the drinks and 15-20 min. waiting for the food, I might be entitle to leave the place and don’t pay for anything. How is in Corea? What should I expect in this situation? Advises welcome!

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