02 April 2018

7 Cultural Customs to Know Before Visiting South Korea

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Before any trip, I love to research my destination by poring over every travel website, blog, and Instagram account I can find. While it can be easy to find highly-rated hotels and restaurants, it is sometimes difficult to find accurate and detailed information about a country's cultural customs. One of the most important aspects of tourism is respecting the host culture. That's why I like to read through CultureGrams' country reports before I take a big international trip. Before my last visit to South Korea, I learned 7 cultural customs from CultureGrams that helped me show respect to the Korean people I interacted with during my journey.

1. Age is EVERYTHING

South Korea is a very hierarchical society. One of the first questions a Korean will ask you is about your age. That is because one's age (and social status) determines how they will be addressed, greeted, and treated during social interactions. The elderly are highly respected. When riding public transportation, it is polite to offer a seat to someone older than yourself.

2. Greetings 101

In Korea, people bow to greet individuals. The lower the bow, the greater the respect. Between friends, a slight nod of the head is enough acknowledgement. Bowing is also used to say goodbye, apologize, and show gratitude.

3. Leave your shoes at the door

When entering a home, Koreans always take off their shoes. Most Korean homes have an entry area where they store their outside shoes and put on house slippers. Guests, local or foreign, are expected to remove their shoes before entering a home.

4. All hands on deck

To show respect, Koreans pass and receive items with both hands. For example, when paying for a meal or goods, offer your credit or cash with both hands and take the receipt or change with both hands. Professionals, meeting for the first time, exchange business cards with both hands after a handshake. People pass items and pour drinks with the right hand. To show respect, the left hand is used to support the forearm or wrist of the right when passing items to older people and those of a higher social class.

5. Compliments

Koreans are often reluctant to accept high honors and graciously deny compliments. They are usually extremely modest when speaking about themselves or their family. So if someone compliments you on your appearance or abilities, it may be expected of you to modestly decline the compliment.

6. THE FOOD

Korea is known for its barbecued meats and kimchi. But there is so much more! An average meal generally consists of soup, rice, a meat dish, and many, many side dishes. These side dishes can range from pickled vegetables to tiny dried anchovies. Koreans eat with metal chopsticks. A spoon is often used to eat soups and rice. At restaurants, silverware is often kept in a box at the table or in a table drawer. Be sure to never leave chopsticks sticking straight up in the rice bowl, as it is considered improper.

7. Learn Korean! (well at least the basics)

One of my favorite things to do when I travel to a new country is learn some basic phrases in the local language.  I know that it can be difficult to pick up a new language quickly, but people always appreciate it when tourists show an effort to learn their language. Each CultureGrams Kids Edition report includes a section called "Can You Say It," which includes common phrases and English pronunciations. I found the simple phrases below very helpful! These are written in formal language, an important form of Korean used when talking to strangers or older Koreans.
Hello Annyong haseyo (ahn-NYONG hah-say-YOH)
Good-bye Annyonghee kasipsio (ahn-NYONG-hee kah-ship-SHEEOH)
Please Put'ak hamnida (POOT-ahk hahm-nee-dah)
Thank you Kamsahamnida (kahm-SAHM-knee-dah)
Yes Ne (neh)
No Animnida (ah-neem-knee-DAH)
  Please let us know if you would like us to share cultural customs from more countries on the blog. Don't have access to CultureGrams? Request a free trial here.