20 Cultural Mistakes to Avoid in Korea – Seoulistic

20 Cultural Mistakes to Avoid in Korea

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


  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.

        • brensgrrl says:

          WeepingWillow was talking about AMISH culture, also known as Pennsylvania Dutch or Pennsylvania German. AMISH culture has nothing to do with the nation of Germany, but it does have certain peculiar cultural characteristics. I live in Pennsylvania near the heart of Amish Country, and I know that Weeping Willow is correct. Many of the Korean cultural norms do seem to be mirrored in the Amish community.

    • Tommy Shin says:

      I am 1.5 generation Korean/ American and I have been to Lancaster Penn for Dutch Wonderland with my kids. I thought I was strange to feel like this Penn Dutch land was like my second home. How people do and show respect, I always feel like being home in Lancaster. There are huge population of Amish folks and people who are not Amish also have been somewhat influenced by Amish in terms of respect etc… At least, that was how it looked like. I have been to many places in the US. There was no place like Lancaster. It was like my second home. Also I have been fascinated by the Amish culture for a long time because it reminds of my childhood back in 80s. Yes, Amish culture is extremely similar to Korean culture (especially older days of Korean culture).

      The society is getting worse and losing human respect and tradition. In many aspect people may think that we don’t need all that stupid tradition and culture. However, those human culture was developed with reason and it has evolved through human primary instinct. Unfortunately, ideologist and smarty idiots are trying to change all these tradition by book and law. Now divorce rate 50% and rate of happiness nearly on the bottom, and all these social bullshit is happening. It is because people are not happy because their primary instinct is not being satisfied.

      Often I hear women even the feminist ones saying, there aren’t enough “men” out there. When they said “men”, they are talking about “men” who can trigger their primary instinct, but now days, most men (movies, dramas) are nothing but giggly fucking pussies, who ends up in their “friend zone”. Men used to take charge, they made decision, and they had ego self esteem and they work outside building things not stuck in the offices with bunch of females and gossip, complain, giggly bitch ass gossiping. Men comes back home from long day of outside work were actually respected by kids and their wives. It is important to see the social problem why women are feeling boring. It is sometime important to get back to the human tradition and act like classic men. You will be surprised how women and people around you will pay respect. As I said, traditional thinking is boring and old ass, but there is reason why they existed through human evolution, and people are now trying hard to ignore them. I believe that most of social fucking bull shit problem will vanish if Amish folks teach our kids in school with 1/10 of their belief. Ofcourse they can’t put 100% Amish belief straight down into the modern kids, but just 10%, our society will change with positive effect. Just look around and try to be warm human to anyone around you 2 times a day, it will be better society than yesterday.

      K pop is not popular because of fancy clothes and music dance bullshit. We already have that in hollywood, bill board chart. It is their lyric and their belief that are appealing to their primal instinct. We can try to ignore human tradition, but our primal instinct will attract it whether you like it or not. We are human before all these ideology and new civil law.

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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 …

  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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  18. Jean Wilson says:

    Cultural shocks are not so much to worry about, we tend to adopt with time. The financial problems ruin our lives. I want to write about my running of cash in the middle of the month. I didn’t want to beg from my friends. So I searched on the internet on how to give car on rent to companies in pakistan. It taught me to never give up in life. Do everything systematically. Follow proper and legal procedures.
    I was able to make deals, within few months of posting ads. So I know that even if was on a holiday or dining out. I had peace of mind, that my expenses were taken care of. So give it a try and share your success story with everyone.

  19. Sephora mia says:

    I didn’t even understand completely obviously I am not Korean but still I am a huge fan of korean people and there ritual afterall I only understand some of it. But I am definitely going to use that red to write a letter to my ex who cheated on me🤭

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  21. Daniella says:

    yeah.This is great.

    but no 14 about sharing. is nice but really is it very bad? second is it everytime cos let me be honest i can get extremely peckish and choose not to share and not even look at those glaring eyes🙄 eat my snack and trash and get back to work. it ain’t bad right?
    i see that 14 as people being greedy…except is a friend and i will love to share occasionly. I could get stingy sometimes…😅

  22. Penny says:

    There are Korean Amish????
    That sounds strange. I would love to get a pic, but I HIGHLY doubt one even exists.
    Amish don’t like thier pictures taken, correct?

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