Travel Guide

9 Cultural Tips & Insights for Travelers in South Korea

Irene
June 21, 2023

South Korea is a beautiful and exciting country with a rich culture. However, there are some cultural norms that tourists should be aware of before visiting in order to be respectful of local culture. Here are 9 you should be aware of. 

Cultural and Social Norms to Follow in South Korea

1. Bowing

Bowing is an important part of Korean culture and is used as a way to show respect, gratitude, apology, and other emotions. It is a gesture that has been practiced in Korea for centuries and is still widely used today.

There are different types of bows in Korean culture, each with its own meaning. A shallow bow is used as a greeting, while a deeper bow is used to show respect to elders or superiors. A very deep bow is used to apologize or express deep gratitude.

The depth of the bow is also affected by the relationship between the people involved. For example, a student would bow more deeply to their teacher than they would to a friend.

By understanding the different types of bows and how they are used, you can show respect for Korean culture and make a good impression on the people you meet.

Photo Source: SMG

2. Respecting elders

Respect for elders is important in Korea for a number of reasons.

First, Confucianism, which is a major influence on Korean culture, emphasizes the importance of respect for elders and authority figures. Confucianism teaches that elders have more experience and wisdom than younger people, and that they should be treated with respect.

Second, Korean society is hierarchical, and respect for elders is seen as a way to maintain social order. In a hierarchical society, people are ranked according to their age, social status, or occupation. Respect for elders is seen as a way to show deference to those who are higher in the hierarchy.

Third, respect for elders is seen as a way to show gratitude for the sacrifices that they have made. Elders have often worked hard to provide for their families and communities, and respect is seen as a way to show appreciation for their efforts.

When speaking to someone who is older, use honorifics and try to use both hands when giving or receiving something from someone.

3. Removing shoes 

There are a few reasons why Koreans remove their shoes before going inside.

Tradition: Removing shoes before entering a home is a custom that has been practiced in Korea for centuries. It is believed to have originated from the practice of heating the floors with ondol, a traditional Korean heating system. Ondol heats the floor directly, so it is important to keep the floor clean to prevent the spread of dirt and germs.

Cleanliness: Koreans place a high value on cleanliness, and removing shoes is seen as a way to keep their homes clean. Shoes can track dirt, dust, and germs from outside, so it is considered polite to remove them before entering a home.

Respect: Removing shoes is also seen as a way to show respect for the home and its occupants. It is a sign that you are willing to make an effort to keep the home clean and that you value the owner's property.

This is why it is customary to remove your shoes before entering a home or certain restaurants and temples. Look for a row of shoes outside the door and take off your shoes to show respect and keep the space clean.

Cafe located in Seochon Village in Seoul (Photo source: SMG)

4. Talking on public transportation

Most Koreans value silence on public transportation. It's considered rude to talk loudly or play music without headphones, so be mindful of your surroundings.

5. Sharing food

Korean cuisine is all about communal eating, and it's common to share dishes with your dining companions. If you're eating with locals, don't be surprised if they start putting food on your plate - it's a sign of hospitality and generosity.

Here are a few reasons why food is shared in Korea.

Tradition: Sharing food is a tradition that has been practiced in Korea for centuries. It is believed to have originated from the practice of farming, where families would share their crops with each other.

Social harmony: Sharing food is seen as a way to promote social harmony. It is a way to show that you are willing to share with others and that you are part of a community.

Appreciation: Sharing food is also seen as a way to show appreciation for the people you are eating with. It is a way to show that you value their company and that you are enjoying their company.

Taste: Korean food is often served in small dishes, which are meant to be shared. This allows everyone to try a variety of different dishes and to experience the flavors of Korean cuisine together.

If you are invited to a Korean meal, it is considered polite to share the food. This shows that you are enjoying the company of your hosts and that you are willing to participate in their culture.

Photo Source: Shuttle Delivery

6. Using chopsticks

Here are a few Do’s and Don’t you should be mindful of when eating with chopsticks in South Korea. 

- Do ask for a fork if you are struggling to use chopsticks with your food. Not all restaurants will have forks, but more touristy areas will provide it if you ask for it. 

- Do ask for a new pair of chopsticks if you drop your chopsticks on the floor. 

- Do offer your company with chopsticks and spoons. Utensils can be found at the table of some restaurants. It is often in a wooden box with a lid or in a small drawer under the table. The person closest usually hands out a pair of chopsticks and a spoon with a napkin. 

- Don't point with your chopsticks. Pointing with your chopsticks is considered rude in Korea. If you need to point at something, use your index finger or your entire hand.

- Don't put your chopsticks upright in your rice bowl. This is a symbol of death in Korea. Instead, place your chopsticks on the side of your plate or in a chopstick rest when you are not using them.

- Don't suck on your chopsticks. This is considered rude and unsanitary.

Korean Dumpling Soup: 'Mandu-guk' (Photo Source: Shuttle Delivery)

7. Tipping

Tipping is not customary in Korea, so don't feel obligated to leave a tip at restaurants or other establishments.

However, there are a few exceptions to the rule. In some high-end restaurants or hotels, tipping may be accepted or even expected. Some Koreans offer their servers tips in advance for better service. 

8. Dressing modestly

Korean culture values modesty. It is linked back to Confucianism which emphasizes modesty. Therefore, it’s best to dress conservatively when visiting temples or other religious sites. 

9. Public displays of affection

Public displays of affection (PDA) like hugging and kissing are not common in South Korea. While there has been some relaxation of social norms in recent years, it's still generally considered inappropriate for couples to engage in PDA in public, especially in front of elders or in crowded areas. 

Garosu-gil in Seoul (Photo source: SMG)

Additional Tips for Tourists

1. Learn some basic Korean phrases

While many Koreans speak English, it's always helpful to learn a few basic Korean phrases like hello (ahn-nyeong-ha-se-yo), thank you (gam-sah-hab-nida), and sorry (mi-anh-hab-nida). 

Learn more on our blog: Quick Guide to Essential Korean Phrases and Body Languages

2. Download Papago for on-the-go translations

Papago is a translation app developed by Naver Corporation, one of South Korea's largest Internet companies. Papago supports 13 languages, including Korean, English, Japanese, Chinese, and Spanish. It can translate text, images, voices, conversation (simultaneously speak in each other's language when talking one-on-one with a foreigner), and handwritten words.

Papago is known for its accuracy and its ability to translate slang and idioms. It also has a number of features that make it easy to use, such as the ability to translate text in real time and the ability to save translations for later use.

If you are planning to travel to Korea, Papago is a great app to have on your phone. It can help you to communicate with locals, to read menus, and to understand signs and instructions.

3. Download Shuttle to place pick up or delivery orders

If you’re struggling to read menus, all restaurant and cafe menus are translated into English in the Shuttle App. If you see a Shuttle logo by the door or counter, you can use the app to read the menu or place a pickup order to skip the line and enjoy a picnic outside. 

South Korea is a fascinating and vibrant country with a rich culture. If you are planning to visit, we recommend learning about Korean customs and traditions so that you can be respectful of the local people. This will make your trip more enjoyable and help you to connect with the local people.

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