12 Cultural Dos and Don’ts in South Korea

Traveling to South Korea is a trip of a lifetime. One long flight will deliver you to a country alive with rich culture, exciting cuisine, buzzing nightlife, and tranquil nature. There are a few cultural dos and don’ts in South Korea that you’ll want to be aware of before you go. Follow these easy rules, and you’ll avoid any potentially uncomfortable situations in this incredible country.

1. DO Take Off Your Shoes

Shoes off in Korean househoulds
Photo by Tiger Lily on Pexels

Like many other countries in Asia, it’s customary to take off your shoes when entering someone’s home.  Many restaurants (especially those where you sit at low tables) also have the same expectation of guests.  You’ll often find a 신발장 (sinbaljang) or “shoe shelf,” right next to the door, to keep guest’s shoes tidy.

2. DO Fill Everyone’s Glass

Drinking dos and don'ts in South Korea

The drinking culture is very important in South Korea, it’s a large part of the social scene, and deeply rooted within their customs  While drinking with others, be sure to hold the bottle with two hands, and top off your party’s glasses if you see them getting low, starting with your elders or someone of higher status, BUT…

3. DON’T Fill Your Own Drink

As important as it is to fill everyone else’s glass, it’s equally important to not fill your own glass up, as it’s considered rude.  Instead, allow someone else to offer to fill your glass for you.  This will often be the youngest person at the table who steps in.

4. DO Use Both Hands

Two hands accepting gifts in South Korea
Photo by Lina Trochez on Unsplash

When receiving or offering a gift, it’s important to use both hands to accept it, as a show of appreciation.  Follow suit when you’re accepting change at a shop or restaurant – using both hands is considered polite.  If you must use only one hand, be sure to only use the right hand.

5. DO Be Quiet on Public Transit

If you’re riding the train or bus in South Korea, refrain from using your phone, having loud conversations, or otherwise making a racket. Being respectful of the people around you, and their experience, is a way of life in South Korea, so don’t be rude and disregard this rule.  The calm and quiet truly does make for a more pleasant experience.

6. DON’T Blow Your Nose in Public

Don't blow your nose like this in public.
Photo by Brandon Nickerson

As tough as this can be, don’t blow your nose in a public place, especially at the table.  Even those who are actively sick, they’ll do what they can to get themselves to a bathroom where they can blow their nose in private.

7. DON’T Expect a Thank You

Don’t expect a thank you when you hold open doors for someone, or otherwise do something considered “polite” in the western world.  It’s not that they’re not appreciative of your gesture, it’s more that, with a culture rooted so strongly in courtesy for others, that those kinds of gestures are expected as a member of society.

8. DO Respect your Elders

Respect your elders in South Korea

Like in most Asian countries, respect for your elders is key to the Korean culture.  Be sure to stand up to receive them when they arrive, hold doors for them, and allow them to enter first. Offer to fill up their glass, and wait until they begin eating to dig in to your own meal. 

9. DON’T Write Names in Red

In South Korea, custom states that if a name is written in red, it means that they are deceased.  For a living person, having their name written in red is considered unlucky and, depending on the situation, it can be seen as a threat, so do yourself a favor and leave the red pen at home.

10. DON’T Sit in Priority Seating

Leave Priority seating in public open for those who need it.
Photo by Pixabay

Where you’re in your home country, it might be considered OK to sit in priority seating (i.e. seating for pregnant women or the differently abled) in public spaces, so long as you hop up and offer it to someone who needs it as soon as they arrive. This is not the case in South Korea – if you are in a public space and do not need priority seating, it’s never acceptable to sit there.

11. DO Sort your Trash

Sort your waste in South Korea

South Korea is one of the top countries in the world in terms of recycling efforts.  You’ll frequently see refuse bins that are separated into categories for waste, plastic, paper and aluminum.  Be sure to be diligent with sorting your waste – the locals take it very, very seriously.

12. DON’T Eat and Stroll

Eat your street food right where you bought it.
Photo by Moujib Aghrout on Unsplash

South Korea is one of the epicenters of amazing street food, but it’s considered rude to be eating while walking.  Whenever possible, street food is meant to be eaten right where it’s purchased.  If you’re not able to do that, tuck off to the side and eat the food while stationary.

There you have it! These few, simple cultural dos and don’ts in South Korea will help ensure a smooth, incredible trip. Bon voyage!

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