When meeting people in Korea, it is important to have good manners. Of course this is true in every country, but notions of etiquette are not always the same, so it is possible you could unintentionally come across as offensive. Here are some tips for situations when good Korean etiquette is necessary!
Be prepared to bow… a lot!
인사 할 때 (insa hal ttae) When greeting someone for the first time, normally you might expect a handshake. In Korea, people sometimes do shake hands, but it is always accompanied with or left out for something more important – a bow. Bowing is seen as being the most respectful way to greet someone. And the lower it is, the more respectful it is! For example, when greeting a teacher, a normal and respectful bow is one from at least 45 degrees and anywhere to up to 90 degrees! For some bows, you may even end up on your knees! This type of deep bow is called 절(jeol). However, this is normally reserved for special national holidays, like 추석 (Chuseok), where people pay respects to their ancestors through a traditional ritual. Other times, for example, when you are saying hello to a worker behind a shop counter, then a little nod of the head may suffice.
Bowing is not just used when greeting people. Also remember to bow whenever you are saying thank you or apologising too! 감사합니다! 죄송합니다!
Always use two hands
Using both hands, 양손 (yangson), is important in a lot of situations. When giving or receiving anything, whether it be a pen, a gift or pouring someone a drink, then the use your hands plays an important role to show respect. This all depends on your relationship with the person to whom you are giving or receiving something.
In any situation, the most respectful way is to always have both hands on the object that you are exchanging. There are many other positions that you can place your non-giving/receiving hand. For example, instead of two hands on the object, with your left hand, you can hold the palm of your right hand or near the wrist, or you can place your hand further up your arm and sometimes even on your chest. These are all ways of showing degrees of respect, but using one hand should only ever be used with friends and those younger than you!
Have good table manners
Traditionally in Korea, food is an integral part of the family culture. Eating together and sharing a meal creates a solid foundation and bond within families, although now many university students do live on their own. This seems to have led to the rise of a trend called 먹방(meokbang). This is a growing internet sensation, where people watch live broadcasts online of normal people who (often cook and) eat food in front of thousands of viewers. Of course, in this situation table manners will not apply, but if you ever go to a restaurant with your Korean friends, here are some things you should be wary of:
Sit according to rank. This is less important if eating with your friends!
Always wait for the eldest to start eating first. Even if the senior has already told you to start eating, it’s still best to wait, especially if other people around you are not eating yet.
Do not hold chopsticks and spoon in the same hand.
Do not stick your chopsticks in your rice. This is because it is a ritual carried out at funerals.
Place your chopsticks/ spoon where you found them on the table, when you are not using them. Normally there will be a small holder or tissue to prevent direct contact with the table.
Do not blow your nose at the table. Turn your head away to cough/ sneeze away form the table and those around you.
Be careful when drinking alcohol
In Korea, work always comes first. After all the work is done for the day, often the boss might decide to have a 회식 (hoesik). This is normally a meal with your boss and co-workers, together with alcoholic drinks, normally soju, and often finishing late into the night. However, even if you already have plans, refusing to go to a 회식 can be viewed that you are not interested in the company. Also, refusing to drink alcohol can be seen as a sign that you are hiding something, because Koreans believe you reveal your true self when you are drunk! So I suppose in a way it’s a kind of test. There are many basic manners for drinking, so here are some things to remember:
Always accept the first drink! There’s nothing like refusing the first drink.
I experienced this myself, when going for dinner with my Korean friend and his uncle. I tried to refuse, but my friend forced me to accept the drink, try some and then he would drink the rest. It was my first time trying soju and it went down terribly… You don’t actually have to finish it. You can even pretend to drink from then on, but the first drink is the most important!
Always receive/ pour with two hands. Even if you are with university friends, but they are older than you, they may still expect to see you use both hands.
Always pour for the people next to you, but only once the glass is empty! You should be constantly looking to see if the people on either side of you, or the boss, have finished their drink. If there is no more soju left, then prepare to order another bottle!
NEVER pour your own drink! Other people around you will do this for you. Also Koreans believe that doing this will give the person sitting opposite you 10 years of buck luck in love! 😛
Turn your head away, when you drink. When with your seniors, you may even turn your whole body around if you have to!
So that’s about it! There are many dos and don’ts when it comes to Korean etiquette and there’s a lot to get used to, but hopefully this helps you to adjust to Korean culture. Leave a comment on any experiences you have had and I will see you next week! 안녕!