South Korea is a very homogeneous country, with nearly all native residents identifying themselves as ethnically Korean and speaking the Korean language. The rapid economic development of South Korea has seen an surge in travelers and businessmen to the country. Korean culture has survived for over 5,000 years and understanding the culture and knowing certain customs and etiquette is essential for getting by in this unique culture.
Korean Family Values – Koreans are heavily influenced by Confucianism, which essentially forms the foundation of their values and beliefs. The family is the most important part of Korean life and according to Confucian tradition, the father is the patriarchal head of the family and it is his honored responsibility to provide food, clothing and a roof over his family’s heads, and to approve the marriages of family members. In Korean before a couple gets married, they usually approach their fathers and ask for their blessings (permission). The eldest son holds an esteemed role in the family and has many duties: first to his parents, then to his brothers from older to younger, then to his sons, then to his wife, and lastly to his daughters. Korea is still very much a country with a strong patriarchal social system hence the emphasis is always centered around the male of the family. Family welfare is also considered much more important than the needs of the individual. No family member should put his/her needs above that of the collective family unit. Members of the family are tied to each other because the actions of one family member reflect on the rest of the family. A family’s history and heritage is extremely important and nothing must bring the family’s name and honor into disrepute.
Greeting Etiquette – Greetings follow strict rules of protocol. Many South Koreans shake hands with expatriates after the bow, thereby blending both cultural styles. To make it easier, we have broken down the art of greeting in South Korea. Men greeting Men – Korean men bow to one another when greeting and departing. The younger man should bow lower than the older man and wait for the older/senior man to initiate the handshake. This usually only takes place during the first meeting and subsequent meetings usually involve more of a slow, polite nod. With foreigners a light handshake and a small bow will do while maintaining direct eye contact. Women greeting Women– At a first meeting, Korean women generally bow. Handshakes are not as common. Greetings between Men & Women – At a first meeting a slight nod or bow will do as physical contact between men and women are frowned upon however in business settings a handshake is fairly common. Information about the other person will be given to the person they are being introduced to in advance of the actual meeting. Wait to be introduced at a social gathering. When you leave a social gathering, say good-bye and bow to each person individually. When meeting for the first time, older Koreans will tend to ask about your age, your parents’ jobs, your job, and your education level, your goals in life and marriage plans. These questions which some may perceive to be highly personal and invasive are how the seniors make conversation.
Eye contact – The older generation of Koreans tend to favor indirect eye contact over direct while the younger generation is comfortable with both. During conversations both direct & indirect eye contact is acceptable. Koreans usually avoid direct eye contact when speaking with elders as a sign of respect. Direct eye contact usually avoided as it often comes across as staring and staring is generally considered inappropriate and rude, and it reflects badly on their family upbringing.
Time – Koreans place a great deal of emphasis on adhering to schedules and deadlines. They value and expect punctuality and diligence. The bus, train, and plane schedules are usually on time and it is important to be punctual for a social function. If plans are made socially or professionally, cancellation or non-attendance is perceived to be rude and an insult to others.
Footwear – When entering a Korean home and certain traditional restaurants, you must remove your shoes. To do any less is a sign of great disrespect. The floor is where they sit and often sleep therefore a dirty floor is intolerable in a Korean home.
Dining Etiquette – If you are invited to a South Korean’s house, it is common for guests to meet at a common spot and travel together rather than show up individually at different times. Lateness is acceptable as long as it is not longer than thirty minutes. Remove your shoes before entering the house and make sure your shoes are neatly placed and not thrown all around. It is common for the hosts greet each guest individually and the head of the family pours drinks for the guests in their presence. The hostess does not pour drinks so do not ask the females to pour drinks as it is considered an insult. While your drink is being poured, hold your glass with both hands as a gesture of respect. If drinking with a senior, turn slightly away from him / her when quaffing. During the visit, it is considered bad form to put your feet on any furniture. When leaving, the hosts usually accompany guests to the gate or to their car because they believe that it is insulting to wish your guests farewell indoors. It is appreciated and expected for a thank you note to be sent the following day after being invited to dinner.
Table manners – Wait to be told where to sit. There is often a strict protocol to be followed. The eldest people present are served first as a mark of respect. The oldest or most senior person is also the one who starts the eating process. Never point your chopsticks at anyone or pierce your food with chopsticks. Chopsticks should be returned to the table after every few bites and when you drink or stop to speak. Do not cross your chopsticks when putting them on the chopstick rest. Do not pick up food with your hands, if it can’t be picked up with chopsticks, use a toothpick. Bones and shells should be put neatly on the table or an extra plate. Try a little bit of everything even if you may not like it, refusal is seen as a form of insult. It is acceptable to ask what something is but ask politely. Always refuse the first offer of second helpings, it is considered polite. It is important to finish everything on your plate, any leftovers is perceived by the hosts as an insult. When you are done, indicate by placing your chopsticks on the chopstick rest or on the table. Never place them parallel across your rice bowl.
Business Etiquette – Appointments are required and should be made 3 to 4 weeks in advance. You should arrive on time for meetings or earlier as this demonstrates respect for the person you are meeting. The most senior South Korean generally enters the room first (so that’s the boss!)
Do not remove your jacket unless the most senior South Korean does so. The exchange of business cards is a potential minefield requiring meticulous negotiation and it involves a strict ritual. In South Korea, the way you treat someone’s business card is indicative of the way you will treat the person. Upon receipt of a business card, examine it, muse upon it, and treat it with reverence. You should never put the card straight into your wallet or purse without so much as a second glance. It is advisable to place them in a holder or folio. Using both hands, present your business card with a Korean side facing up so that it is readable by the recipient. Most importantly, never write on someone’s business card in their presence.
If you know of any other South Korea’s customs or etiquette, drop us a comment and share with us!