Etiquette & Faux Pas in South Korea: What Not to Do

Some habits that are okay back home are completely taboo in Korea, and won’t help you make new friends. Katie & Ben from Two Wandering Soles go through what not to do, so you can mind your manners and avoid awkward situations while traveling in South Korea.

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If you’re visiting South Korea for the first time, here are 16 things you should know about etiquette so you don’t accidentally offend the locals.

1. Cover Up, Ladies!

While short-shorts and skirts are commonplace for women in Korea’s major cities, exposed shoulders and low-cut tops are considered taboo elsewhere.

Summers get hot in South Korea, so loose-fitting t-shirts are a good alternative to tank tops. And if you really can’t cover up that cleavage, be prepared for some not so pleasant looks ­­­– especially from older Korean women.

2. Accept and Present Things with Both Hands

Use both hands when accepting change or passing something at a dinner table. If you feel ridiculous handing a cashier a bill with both hands, try this: Place your left hand on the inside of your right wrist as you extend your arm with the payment.

Also, try to always accept and present things with your right hand. Sorry, lefties!

3. Learn How to Properly Shake Hands

When shaking hands, use both hands – or at least place your left hand on your right wrist for support. A slight bow of the head is also a polite gesture.

Street food in Seoul. Photo credit: iStock

4. Keep Your Hands to Yourself (at least at first!)

While it’s not uncommon to have a few elbows thrown your direction on a crowded street, Koreans aren’t big on touching someone they don’t know. This means hugs and shoulder pats aren’t welcomed between strangers.

Once you’re in the friend zone though, something as intimate as walking down the street while holding hands is totally acceptable.

5. Age is Important

Be prepared for complete strangers to ask your age upon meeting. I was completely surprised (and a little bit offended) by this question when I first moved to Korea. While this may be considered a rude question in your home country, it’s totally normal in Korean culture as it establishes seniority in a relationship.

Oh, and in Korea, you’re one year older than you think you are because everyone is born “one year old”.

6. Remove Your Shoes

Don’t you dare walk inside with shoes on (unless you want to be viewed as a disrespectful savage!). Make sure to remove your shoes before entering Korean households, temples and even schools.

Often times, slippers are provided so you don’t need to be barefoot.

Bongeunsa Temple in Seoul, South Korea. Photo credit: iStock

7. Don’t Put Your Feet up on Furniture

And while we’re on the topic of feet, refrain from resting your tired tootsies on the chair across from you, no matter how tempting that may be.

We’ve learned the hard way! The bottoms of one’s feet are seen as “dirty”, so propping them up on furniture is a big no-no.  

8. Wait to Take Your First Bite

Typically, in dining situations, the most elder person will take the first bite. This signifies that everyone else can start eating.

9. Don’t Pour Your Own Drinks

It’s generally considered impolite to pour your own drink. If you’re eating with others, let them pour your glass, and return the favor.

10. Be Careful with Your Chopsticks

After you’ve finished eating, be careful not to place your chopsticks upright in your bowl. This is said to look like incense at a funeral.

Instead, lay them over the mouth of the bowl so they balance across.

11. Wait to Blow Your Nose

Yes, I know that gochujang (red chili paste) is spicy; but go against your instincts and refrain from grabbing a tissue. Blowing your nose in public is considered, especially while eating, rude.

If that drip just won’t quit, politely excuse yourself and take care of business in the restroom.

12. Watch Out for the Number Four

The number four is unlucky in Korea because it sounds similar to the word for “death”. You may notice many buildings don’t have a fourth floor, or it will be labelled “F”.

It’s also considered unlucky to give gifts in fours.

Gamcheon village, Busan, South Korea. Photo credit: iStock

13. Don’t Write in Red Ink

Never ever write someone’s name in red ink. Again, I learned the hard way!

I was yelled at by a room full of students when I started writing one of their names on the whiteboard using a red marker. This is a bad omen, as dead people’s names are written in red.

14. Be Careful With Your Hand Gestures

When gesturing for someone to come over to you or when hailing a cab, be sure your palm is facing down and you move all your fingers in one sweeping motion.

Making this gesture palm-up, as is common in many countries, is insulting in Korea because it’s how they call their dogs. Don’t make that mistake!

15. Don’t Throw Toilet Paper in the Toilet

Bathroom talk time: Yeah, we’re going there! In Korean bathrooms, you’ll see a bin for toilet paper. Toss your toilet paper in this instead of the toilet.

This goes for feminine products too, ladies. The plumbing systems can’t handle the waste, so save yourself the embarrassment and do as the Koreans do.

16. Respect Noraebang Etiquette

Noraebangs (karaoke rooms) are super popular in Korea. They make for a great night out with friends or co-workers, as long as you follow a few basic (and common sense) rules.

You may be excited when you see the song list, but resist the urge to plug in the numbers for every Spice Girl song in the book. Select one, and let others have a turn before you choose another.

And on that note, don't hog the microphone – everyone is there to have a good time (and not just listen to you belt out the lyrics to your favorite tunes), so share the time in the spotlight.

Lastly, avoid songs that aren't upbeat. While ballads might be fun to sing in the shower, they’re not as entertaining in a noraebang. Trust us.

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3 Comments

  • Namrin said

    This is a typical Chinese/Japanese etiquette but mostly influence by old Chinese belief. Many East/Southeast Asian countries also apply many of these rules.

  • judith said

    I have become fascinated with South Korea hoping to go there next spring I want to find out about their etiquette so as not to offend

  • aussiejem said

    I'm in South Korea right now, holding back the urge to blow my nose while eating a very spicy kimchi jjigae! All of the mentioned ettiquite is very important. It will also help to have at least a few wordsof Korean to properly greet and thank people. Most South Koreans know basic English but will be relieved if you can speak and understand some Korean. Hope you visit soon and have a great time Judith! It's a wonderful country.

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