As a foreigner living in Korea, it can be a bit difficult to pick up on the culture at first, especially if you are from the West, where things are just so different. While most of us read about the typical cultural etiquette such as bowing, removing shoes inside, and even pouring drinks for those at your table, there are other customs in Korea that are rarely touched upon. Here are a few less-spoken about customs that I learned during my time in Korea that may help out those visiting the country who aren’t overly familiar with the standards and norms.
1) Tipping is not expected
I’ve heard this isn’t very common in Europe either, but for those of us who are from the USA, this is one of the biggest adjustments to make when you go to a restaurant. Many restaurants are set up where you will serve yourself side dishes (반찬) and/or water. Even so, generally there will be staff to take your order and bring your food to you, as well as clean the table.
Still, there is no gratuity for servers. You are not expected to leave any money on the table, and if you pay with a card, there is no space for you to write in a tip amount. While this may seem rude to those of us who are used to leaving a 15% or even 20% tip every time we go out to eat, it’s not expected in Korea. This is actually great for those on a budget, as it saves a few dollars each time you eat out!
2) Do not say “Bless You” if someone sneezes
I learned this the hard way in class. One of my Korean classmates sneezed, and I said “Bless You” – and then the rest of the Korean students, and even the professor, gave me a strange look. Apparently this is another Western thing. There isn’t any Korean equivalent for “Bless You” either. If someone sneezes, nothing is said. As someone who is generally the “Bless You” person, it was hard to stay quiet when a local sneezed, but it was better than being stared at for sure.
3) General Subway Etiquette
There’s a few things to cover here. The first being how to treat elders. You always let them get on the subway first, and if there are very few seats, you should always let the elder have an empty seat, rather than making them stand. While this seems like simple good manners, you’d be surprised how few foreigners follow these unspoken rules in Korea.
While you may think this is simply logical too, you should always be quiet on the subway. You’re allowed to talk, but keeping a whisper or “inside voice” is necessary. People will ask you to be quiet if they think you are speaking too loudly, or an 아줌마 or 아저씨
may even hit you. You can use your cellphone on the subway, but the same rules apply. Generally people will play games on their phones, check news sites, or do other singular activities even if they are with someone else.
4) PDA is still taboo
PDA, also known as Public Displays of Affection. This is not common between couples in Korea at all. It’s very rare that you’ll see a Korean couple even holding hands, let alone hugging or kissing in public. While it is very common to see two women linking arms, it would rarely happen between a couple.
A shift is starting to happen with the younger generation – high school couples will hold hands on the subway and such, but another form of showing off your affection is much more common – couple wear! Couple rings are very popular in Korea, and they are one of the more subtle ways of showing you are “with” someone. Sometimes couples will coordinate backpacks, other accessories or even full outfits with each other to show that they are dating. Without physically touching each other, couples are able to showcase their romance by coordinating their fashion which can sometimes look adorable, and other times, a bit confusing to those who are seeing this trend for the first time. Even if you’re not Korean, you should be respectful of the culture and not show too much PDA should you walk the streets with your loved one.
Bonus: A Korean Practice Not Common in The West
There’s a time and place for Bargaining prices
In America, we have a set in stone system where at a place of business regardless of how big or small, you pay the price tag set on the item. While this is true in most name brand stores in Korea, such as SPAO, Etude House, or Lotte Department Store, in independent stores and street vendors, you are expected to barter, or there’s a good chance you’ll be overpaying for a product.
From personal experience, it’s a bit difficult doing so if you aren’t very familiar with Korean language. The store-keeps will take out a calculator to show you the price, but if you can speak Korean they seem more likely to barter with you. Knowing key phrases such as numbers and ”It’s too expensive” will help. I was able to get a 40,000KRW pair of shoes for 25,000KRW, a 30,000KRW vest for 25,000KRW and a 18,000KRW tee-shirt for 15,000KRW. If you’re a girl, using a bit of aegyo on the male workers doesn’t hurt at all, and everyone should always have cash on them since paying in cash can get you better deals. Bargaining is most popular in small shops in Myeongdong, near Ehwa Women’s University, and Hongdae.