In South Korea, good manners, originated from the influence of Confucianism, are extremely important and highly practiced. This makes it both very mysterious and interesting for the Western cultures. Whether at the table, in the subway or while having a drink, travellers have to be careful not to offend the local people.
Of course, people change and because of progress, some of these practices have vanished... However, Koreans will be delighted to see that you follow and respect their customs.
Saying hello and greeting the elders
To begin with, during a meeting, it is typical for Koreans to bow as a sign of respect ; an alternative way is to shake hands. However, with the people you know well, a nod which is the Korean equivalent to "good morning" will do.
As a custom, if you are taking something from an elderly person, always use both hands; if you must use one hand, you can support your right arm with your left hand. When shaking hands with an elderly person, support your right arm with your left hand.
Sniffing but not blowing your nose in public
It is also important to know that blowing your nose in public is perceived as rude and unhygienic in Korea. On the contrary, sniffing when you’ve got a running nose is not offensive, and unlike the West, sniffing is very badly perceived. So, if you are in a meeting or at a table, it is best to apologize for going to the toilet and blowing your nose in private.
At the table and without being odd!
Table manner is widely practice. Here are some of the rules:
- Once you are seated for dinner, it is a common courtesy to let those older than you to begin eating first before you get started. Otherwise it could be seen as disrespectful.
- You should avoid sticking your chopsticks straight into the bowl of rice. In many Asian cultures, people usually put incense sticks in a bowl of sand at funerals and sticking your chopsticks in a bowl of rice resembles this tradition.
- If the food falls on the table, it is not eaten. Tables are considered "dirty" in Korea and you will probably look like someone with poor hygiene if you do so.
- Unlike in many other Asian countries, you should not lift your rice bowl while eating your meal.
Etiquette when drinking alcoholic beverages
Finally, everything related to alcohol also has specific rules in Korea:
- You never serve yourself alcohol. You must first serve the elderly people and then wait to be served.
- You must hold your glass in both hands when you are served and hold the glass with your right hand and pour the alcohol with your left hand. This tradition dates back to the time when the people wore the traditional Hanbok clothes, where the long sleeves should not hang around the food, so they were held with the hand under the wrist.
- When drinking, you must turn slightly away from the elderly person and cover your mouth and glass with your hand.
- It is customary not to leave one of your friends with an empty glass, that is why it is recommended to always leave a little alcohol when drinking with the Koreans to avoid ending up with a full glass.
Other peculiar matter to avoid.
Moreover, writing someone's name in red ink is synonymous with bad luck in Korea. In the past, the names of deceased persons were written in red ink on family registers and funeral banners.
Remember some of these rules to impress the Koreans on your next trip to South Korea.