Image from eico
When I first arrived in Korea from Canada, I had no idea what to expect. I had never met a Korean person, I had never tasted kimchi and I had no idea what couple pants were. I thought ‘Big Bang’ was a theory and I had never seen a dog with pink fur or a grown woman wear a hair bow. I met a Korean person within three seconds of arriving at immigration. I tasted kimchi, a fermented vegetable dish, at my first meal. It took me awhile to understand the obsession with everything ‘couples’ and it still feels a little strange. I now have a basket full of my own hair accessories and T.O.P–a singer in the K-pop group, Big Bang— is sexy-hae/섹시해 (sexy)! I still can’t imagine dying any of my pets’ fur, but at least now I don’t roll over in a fit of giggles when I see a dog with a puffy pink tail.
I seem to have adjusted well over the last three years and what was once extremely foreign to me is perfectly normal or at least, not shockingly strange. It’s exciting to learn about a new culture, and it’s fun to participate. If you want to come to Korea totally in the dark like I did, stop reading. If you want to be prepared slightly and know a little bit about what’s to come, read ahead!
Ladies, it's important to note Korean style. Korean women will rarely show their cleavage or shoulders in public. They cover their upper bodies. Although showing off your shoulders isn't illegal, people will stare at you and older Koreans may even gesture for you to cover up. Koreans aren't totally conservative, though. They will show off their legs. If you want to wear more revealing clothing, try a mini shirt or botty shorts!
Gents, you may be unaccustomed to wearing skinny jeans back home, but in Korea, they are high fashion. You’ll also notice that everyone tends to dress up and men like their clothes to fit snuggly.
Koreans ask direct questions and make straightforward comments about one’s physical appearance. This is a big cultural difference between Korean and foreign cultures. It is not uncommon for a group of Koreans to ask you to pick who is the most attractive among the group. As well, they will say straightforward remarks like, “You are so pretty”, “You are not pretty”, “You are fat”, “You look tired/sick”, “You look better when you wear makeup”, “Your hairstyle looks messy”, “You’re eyes are big”, and “Your face is small”. Foreigners often struggle to overcome this kind of direct speech regardless of whether it is positive or negative, but try hard not to let it bother you. It will happen and it’s just part of living in Korea!
As well, Koreans will ask personal questions within a few minutes of meeting a new person. The first two questions Koreans ask are usually, “How old are you?” and “What is your nationality?” Koreans ask about age because Korean society is ordered according to age hierarchy. Those older are paid more respect than those younger. They like to know where you stand in relation to them according to age rank.
As well, Koreans don’t interact with people from other countries often. They are simply curious about where you are from, and their questions are never meant to be rude. Other inquiries they may make are: What color are your eyes? How tall are you? Do you have a boyfriend/girlfriend? Are you married? When do you want to get married? Can you eat Korean food? Can you use chopsticks? Have you tried kimchi?
Bowing: Koreans bow when they greet someone. They also bow when they leave a group. The exception is in business environments. People working in business shake hands and bow when greeting or making a deal. It’s therefore appropriate to offer your hand when introducing yourself to someone new within a work setting; otherwise bowing is expected and most polite.
Waving: It is rude to show the palm of your hand face up when beckoning someone. Keep your palm face down and then move your fingers back and forth towards your own body. As well, always wave in this manner if you are hailing a cab or bus or calling to a server.
Eye contact: Koreans maintain eye contact when they speak to each other. Sometimes a person much younger will avert his/her eyes when speaking to an elder. The younger person may look to the ground and keep their head bowed slightly. This is considered an older tradition and it’s beginning to disappear. It’s not considered rude for a foreigner to make eye contact with an elder person.
Koreans are known to beat around the bush especially when talking to elders or those ranked higher than them, like a boss. Although they have no problems telling a person he is fat or that she looks tired or should wear more makeup, they will avoid confrontation at all costs. This leads to a lot of confusing answers, like “yes” or “maybe” when they really mean “no”. Koreans say they have a “sixth sense” that is able to decipher this vagueness. Koreans are able to figure out what the other person means without being told exactly..
The reason for this behavior is to maintain ‘face’. ‘Face’ refers to respect you garner and also show to others. It includes actions taken to maintain positive feelings towards each other. It is important not to humiliate others or yourself. If you confront someone directly about their behavior, it is extremely rude and both parties will ‘lose face’.
It’s also rude to question or defy your boss. You must accept and follow whatever he/she directs. If you don’t want to do something, say you will do it and then avoid it. Your coworkers or friends will get the hint that you are uncomfortable. If you have a big problem, try to bring it up discreetly and subtly. Koreans will appreciate your cultural sensitivity and respond more graciously.
In Korea, you will warrant evil stares if you jaywalk and it is illegal. People always cross at the crosswalk and they always wait for the green light to proceed.
Koreans are a very affectionate folk. Couples always walk arm in arm or hold hands or even ‘bear hug’ while walking together. Some couples wear the same outfits (couple clothes) so everyone knows they are together. If they want to be more discrete they even buy matching underwear. I asked my coworker what she would do with her couples’ panties if she broke up with her boyfriend. She replied nonchalantly, “throw them away of course!” Interestingly, couples stop at public hand holding and vigorous hugging. It’s rare to see a couple kiss in public and it’s uncomfortable when foreigners are kissing passionately on the subway. Try to stick to arm linking rather than French kissing while you’re out and about with your special someone.
It’s also not uncommon to see men linking arms with each other. Women too will hold hands and walk closely together. High school boys will sit on each others’ laps. Friends spending time together often show that level of intimacy in public.
Alcohol plays an important role in Korean life. People usually consume alcohol with meals and offering alcohol to others is a sign of respect. As well, alcohol allows people to loosen up, relieve stress from work and reveal their true character to others. In a business setting, bosses will treat their employees to big company dinners that involve lots of alcohol and food. It is here that coworkers can bond and break down formal barriers that are present in the workplace. Since alcohol is so central in Korean society, it also means there are intoxicated people stumbling home any day of the week. It is possible to see a drunken middle aged man in a suit passed out on the curb at 9pm. Don’t be too concerned! He’ll be awake and ready to work by 8am the next day.
Koreans believe feet are dirty. Shoes must always be removed when entering a home. Sometimes restaurants or offices will ask you to take off your shoes there too. Even if Koreans are in a giant rush they will still take off their shoes before walking inside their house. A lot of Koreans change from their outdoor shoes into indoor slippers; they do not walk barefoot outdoors and sometimes indoors.
You may see a number of people spit while staying in Korea. Although it is technically illegal and generally seen as a dirty and unhygienic behavior, some people still do it. People spit on the street, out of car windows, into their empty coffee cups at Starbucks, at restaurants into ashtrays, in the toilet and into garbage bins.
Koreans struggle to wait for things. They call it Bal-ee-Bal-ee /빨리-빨리 Culture or Quick-Quick Culture. In Korea, you can get everything done quickly or at the last minute. If you need someone to repair your broken washing machine it’s done within an hour. Your doctor’s visit won’t take more than 30 minutes, including the wait time. In these cases (and many more), Korean efficiency is second to none.
Bal-ee Bal-ee Culture becomes a problem sometimes when you are actually waiting for something in a group, like a line at the grocery store or to get onto the subway. It is a behavior often seen in middle-aged women to simply rush to the front and push and shove until they get what they want. This problem has been greatly alleviated in the last few years with Hanjul seogi/한 줄 서기 (Stand in a line) Campaign, but it is something that you should be aware of.
Most public places, like the post office, bank, and cell phone A/S centers have ticket numbers. You then don’t have to wait in a line. You wait for your number to be called and then approach the counter. Don’t forget to grab a number or look for the ticketing machine when you’re out.
Lindsey lived and worked in Seoul, South Korea for over 5 years. While there, she dabbled in different areas of work and explored the culture. She spent time teaching elementary students, business English to adults and high school students about college preparation. She also studied Korean, wrote blogs and tasted as many foods as she possibly could including fermented skate fish. Over the years, Lindsey developed a love for Korea and the culture. She is keen to share her knowledge of Korea with others and she will always consider Korea a second home.