South Korean Customs

Social Ranking

The remnants of 500 years of Confucianism (1392 – 1910) still dictate the ways people interact in South Korea. Korean culture is hierarchical and one’s social status determines how one is treated. One of the first questions Koreans ask each other when they meet for the first time is age. As in Japan, different forms of speech are used with elders to show deference and respect. One practice is to give up your seat on the bus for an older person.

Visiting a South Korean Home

It is customary to bring a small gift when visiting a South Korean home. It’s better to bring a small token and not an ostentatious object that calls attention to you. Fruit, flowers, and chocolates are popular gifts for these occasions.

Removing Shoes

South Koreans generally sit, eat, and sleep on the floor, so you will be expected to remove your shoes upon entering a South Korean home and some schools and restaurants. Bare feet may be offensive to people of the older generations, so it’s best to wear socks when visiting (be sure they’re clean and free of holes! 

Eating and Drinking

In addition to chopsticks, South Koreans regularly use soup spoons at meals. The chopsticks are used primarily for side dishes, while the spoon is used for soup and rice. Unlike in Japan, it’s not appropriate to pick up your rice bowl while eating. All plates and bowls should stay on the table. Drinking customs in South Korea are also different than in Japan. Use both hands when pouring a drink for someone, because it shows respect. Though filling a companion’s glass with beer or soju (similar to vodka) is appropriate, it’s essential that the glass is completely empty before pouring. This may seem like a trivial concern, but will count for a lot in the eyes of your South Korean friends.

Paying when Socializing

Among young people, the person who issued the invitation usually pays. If you’re out with a group, the bill is split and everyone pitches in. Among older Koreans, one person will take care of the bill, and roles will switch the next time.

Tipping

Tipping is not a traditional Korean custom; however, a 10 percent service charge is added to bills at all tourist hotels and tipping is not expected. It’s never necessary to tip a taxi driver unless he assists you with your luggage or takes you to or from the airport.

Physical Contact

South Koreans are averse to overt physical contact between members of the opposite sex. They generally limit interpersonal contact to a courteous handshake; however, very good friends are often physical with each other, so don’t be surprised to see men and women walking hand-in-hand with a member of the same sex. Public displays of affection between couples, like hugging and kissing, are considered very improper.

Bathing

South Korean public baths, moyoktang, are wonderful. After a long, stressful day, there’s nothing like a steamy sauna and bath to wash away your troubles. Moyoktang are found throughout the city and are inexpensive. There are usually showers to use before entering the hot tub. Many places also have a cold water tank, which is amazingly refreshing after a piping hot sauna. A special feature of the baths is the underwear-clad massage. The masseuses will scrub you down with hot water and towels, removing all traces of grime. You’ve never known the true meaning of “squeaky-clean” until you’ve experienced the wonderful traditions at the public bath.

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