Korean Manners and Etiquette: Do’s and Don’ts of First Meetings

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First time meetings in Korea are not always as simple as “hello.” There’s a lot of times people might be offended. Find out the do’s and don’ts of Korean etiquette when meeting someone for the the first time!

Informal Settings

Courtesy of Dustin Cole

Courtesy of Dustin Cole

Do’s

If you’re meeting friends of friends, your internet penpal, or maybe even a few chaps at the pub, greeting etiquette in Korea is quite relaxed. Most informal settings only require a small, short bow and a smile. Hand waves to say hi or bye are also quite common (but are more casual). To make an even better impression, say hello in Korean. And… that’s about it. Sorry, there’s no secret handshake or codeword for picture perfect Korean manners in informal situations. Just be cool and smile, and other people will too.

Note:

These casual meetings are mostly true for younger Koreans. The older the person, the stricter the rules become. See “Formal Settings” below for more Korean etiquette tips.

Language Tip:

Hello in Korean is 안녕하세요 (annyeonghaseyo).

Source: Flickr

Source: Flickr

Don’ts

Hugs: Don’t hug someone you’ve just met for the first time. This also applies when saying goodbye. Even if you’ve just had the most spirit-kindling noraebang singing session, hugging might make things awkward. Although the culture around hugging is changing, hugging in Korea is generally reserved for couples or for close friends or family that are saying goodbye for a long while. Instead, if you want some skin, you can opt for the universally acceptable high-five ;).

Formal Settings

Do’s

Bow Hard: Formal settings can include meeting future parents in law, your child’s teacher, or even a blind date. The more serious the meeting (i.e. important business meeting, meeting future in-laws for the first time), the more respect should be shown. And in Korea, respect is all in the bow. Don’t give one of those casual nodding style bows you give to the convenience store lady. Make sure your bow is serving its purpose and that you’re putting in the effort (note: effort levels are often noticeable in bows).

Tip: Handshakes also commonly accompany bows. However, it’s more common for Korean men to offer a handshake than women.

Here’s Seoulistic’s video on When and How to Bow in Korea:

Titles and Names: When calling other people, Korean etiquette often dictates the use of titles instead of names. So rather than calling your father-in-law “Mr. Park,” the title 아버지 (abeoji – “father”) is more appropriate. Most of the time the titles are quite obvious (i.e. teachers, bosses, etc.). If you’re ever not sure what to call the other person, just ask! It’s not an uncommon question in Korea. If it’s an awkward question for you, pull someone else to the side and say, “Dude! What do I call him?!”

Courtesy of Dustin Cole

Courtesy of Dustin Cole

Drink (or Fake It): All that rigidness that’s built into the culture needs a bit of tweaking. And there’s no better social lubricant than booze. To those who enjoy the partaking of alcoholic beverages, this is wonderful news. To non-drinkers, it might result in a head-pounding makgeolli hangover the next day. If you’re not a fan of drinking, here’s a few tips:

• Explain first that you’re not a fan of alcohol. In the past, you would be force-fed. But these days people are much more understanding.
• Don’t finish your drink so you don’t get refills. In Korea, glasses are refilled when the glass is empty.
• Drink the first glass, only. The first glass is the most important and it’s an expression that you are part of the group. You can also leave the first glass unfinished.

If you don’t want to drink at all (religious, personal reasons), just say so. Although drinking is part of the Korean culture (find out why drinking is so important here), people will understand.

Click next page for more cultural DOs and DONTs!

Keith
Keith
Keith Kim is a Korean-American who has been living in Korea for almost a decade. Being in a unique position as both a Korean and a non-Korean, he's put all his experience and knowledge for surviving in Korea in Survival Korean . Read it to learn how you can survive in Korea. Follow him on Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram.

13 Comments

  1. zero says:

    Hi,

    how about a muslim which can’t consume alcohol. How do the korean see that & how to responds?

  2. Jun says:

    What if you are allergic to alcohol.. if i even drink 1 shot of liquor or anything i end up throwing up. how do you convey that?

  3. Lisa says:

    Thank you for this very informative post! So my question is, if you meet a new person and have nobody besides you whom you can ask what to call the person – what do you do? Ask the person directly what you should call him/her and be impolite for a small moment, not ask and be forever impolite or just call the person 선생님?
    I’ve been to Korea before and I experienced one situation like this. It was very difficult, especially since my Korean is not very good and the other person could not understand English at all (and was older than me).

    So, if asking directly is possible and not too impolite because there’s no one else around – how would you ask in Korean?

    And thank you for your wonderful and informative homepage – love it!
    Lisa from Austria

  4. Caffy says:

    Is it a must for a foreign female to bow to the ground when first met Korean guy’s parents?

  5. Kent says:

    Do Korean parents find it offensive if you bow to them when greeting even if you’re from another origin?

  6. Kaia says:

    This is really informative! Just one question: My boyfriend wants me to meet his parents. Could you describe what to do when a foreign girl meets a Korean guy’s parents for the first time?

  7. Joe C says:

    Thanks for the information. My wife and I are close with a young Korean girl, and she is bringing her new husband (and baby) to the US so her husband can meet us. He hasn’t been to the US before. How do we greet him upon arrival? I am much older than him. Do I bow?

    • Keith says:

      Hi Joe. It sounds pretty informal. A handshake is probably good enough 🙂 He’ll probably reach with two hands to shake your hand, I’d recommend you to do the same — it’ll show your initial respect as you’re meeting for the first time.

  8. Annie says:

    Hi!
    I have a couple of questions regarding greetings. My family and I are letting a 16 year old South Korean boy live in our home as part of a language exchange for 12 months. The understanding on both sides is that he’ll be treated as part of the family (as a son and sibling).
    When we go to pick him up at the airport, how do my parents greet him (obviously them being far older than him)? How does my brother greet him (younger)? And how do I greet him? I’m 3 months younger than him. And for my parents, are hugs acceptable at all? Or should we all just stick to a handshake? Thanks for your reply 🙂

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