20 Things You Must Know About Korean Culture

A foreign country means foreign customs and cultures – exactly what most of us are looking for. While South Korea is quite modernized in many ways, there are some eccentricities to expect while in Korea. If you really want to dig into Korean culture you need to learn the language. Click here to visit Korean Class 101 to get started learning online.

Before the list lets take a quick look at some general ideas about Korean history and language.

Here are some important facts to Know About South Korean Culture:

  1. Take off your shoes when you arrive
  2. Don’t be too surprised to see the Korean people using their middle finger
  3. Lots of Korean people do not speak English
  4. The Seoul subway system is huge but not too difficult to navigate
  5. Ladies, the typical Korean female has little problem showing off their legs

(Continue Reading the rest of the list below)

Korea has a history of being isolated and neutral. They have changed a lot during the 2oth and 21st Centuries. There is a strong social family feeling. To fit in with the culture you need to show interest in the language. It is also a good idea to try all the food and learn to love it.

Korea feels a bit like an ‘inside group’.  You remember when you try to talk to a group of friends and they laugh about something random and then say “oh that’s an inside joke, sorry.” You feel kind of left out and wanting to know what the story behind that joke was.  I feel like the whole country of Korea is like that.

>>Click here to read the List of Differences between South Koreans and Americans<<

But admission to that “group” requires some basic things: proficiency in the language, a love of the food, and unfortunately a Korean face. This is not always the case but I’d say around 80% of the time (as of this writing in 2017) if you have at least 2 of those 3 things you can fit in culturally.

So keep this in mind as you travel to Korea.  That the people here have always had a strong identity and that identity is strongly associated with their language and appearance. Once you pass the first few months of welcome then you may start to wonder why you can’t seem to get “in.” Don’t worry. It isn’t easy. But the people I have seen succeed are always those who just stay positive and learn to love the food.

And Now for the List of the Top 20 Things You Must Know About Korean Culture

Photo of shoes outside a temple, South Korea

1. Take off your shoes when you arrive – or not.

An increasing number of time-crunched locals are going the Western way and keeping their shoes on their feet. Since you probably won’t know which camp your host is in, follow their lead to be absolutely sure. Korean people are getting more comfortable with non-Koreans wearing shoes in their house. Its still best to ask but generally they will tell you its ok to wear your shoes, if they don’t then the default should be to remove them.

I had a friend the other day ask why Americans wear their shoes on the bed. He saw a movie or tv show where someone just plopped on the bed after coming home from work with his shoes on. I told him that isn’t common but he was very shocked.

2. Don’t be too surprised to see Korean people using their middle finger to point, tap a touch screen, or otherwise refer to something.

There’s no insult intended with the gesture – it’s just the longest finger hitting the button first.

I had a few co-workers who were ‘older’ and always used their middle finger when pointing at something (or someone) during a work presentation. We started having more American clients and they were a bit shocked when they first saw the middle finger used like this.

We tried getting them to change but it was too tough. My 5 year old now uses his middle finger for everything and its not easy getting him to change either.

Photo of a sign with a poor English translation, Jeju Island South Korea
Photo of Poor English Translation, Jeju Island South Korea © benkucinski

3. For most locals, English is sorely lacking

This means good job prospects for English teachers, but finding a local to communicate in good English is a tall order. Don’t be surprised to be mistaken for an English teacher, and try to handle their practiced questions gracefully. This is actually changing. Now it isn’t difficult to find an English speaker. If you just ask around in Seoul in any crowded area or on the subway you should find at least a few English speakers.

4. The Seoul subway system is huge, the lines sometimes long, and the ajummas are pushy.

The trains don’t run 24 hours, however, so making a long trip or more than one transfer after 11pm begins to push it. Instead, keep your eyes for some of the buses that run well after the subways shut down. Several late-night buses leave from Yangjae station (line 3) while others leave from Sadang station (line 4). If you’re close to one of those stations, try one of the buses there before resorting to a taxi.

5. Ladies, the typical local has little problem showing off their legs – thus the abundance of short shorts and skirts.

Most of the locals would look (stare) at someone with uncovered shoulders, however. Don’t ask me what’s going through their minds – just avoid sleeveless shirts or spaghetti strap shirts. Also cleavage is getting to be more common but in general the rule is cover the top and show off the legs. (unless you want to be stared at then go with the opposite :).

<<2019 Update>>

This seems to have really changed in the past year or so. Especially in Seoul. So pretty much all fashions are accepted. Have fun!

>>Click here to go over to Korean Class 101 and start learning Korean.<<

6. Men, if out on a date, be prepared to pay for most everything.

Equality in paying is becoming more common, but a woman might lose face if she’s the one handing over a card. This goes double if you’re the oldest one at the table. And split checks is usually frown upon especially by the restaurant so if you want to split up the check with friends then its best to do it on your own and not involve the restaurant.

Photo of a hooka lounge in Hongdae, Seoul South Korea
Photo of Hongdae Hooka Lounge, Seoul South Korea © seafaringwoman

>>2019 Update<<

This is still a thing. I personally am not in the dating scene anymore but from what I hear this hasn’t changed much. But open dialogue about paying is more accepted now. Also you’ll need to pick up on some cues but don’t over think it. Just play it cool and say something.

7. Hongdae and Itaewon are the two most popular areas with foreigners that like to party.

If you like to be catered to and see English menus, you’ll feel right at home. If you came to experience the Korean version of nightlife, get thee to Kondae (Konkuk University, line 2) or Sinchon (also line 2). While some foreigners also visit these areas, you’ll notice fewer English menus (a great chance to practice your Korean!)

8. Speaking of Sinchon, there’s actually two of them.

One is Sinchon (pronounce it ‘Sin-CHOWN’) and is in northwest Seoul near Hongdae. The other is Sincheon (pronounce it ‘Sin-CHAWN’) and is in southeast Seoul near Jamsil. More than a few locals have to pronounce it carefully to make sure they meet their friends at the same one!

9. When you’re ready for a day trip out of Seoul, the country is your oyster.

Virtually all of mainland Korea is roundtrippable in one day, thanks to an excellent train and express bus system. While the Korea people often reserve their tickets ahead of time, the process is bit harder for foreigners to do. Your best bet is to head to a train station, where you can reserve tickets well ahead of time – in ENGLISH! – through an automated ticketing machine.

10. Speaking of trains, sometimes the train has sold out of seats and you’ll have to take a standing room ticket.

This does not mean you’ll be standing the whole time. It just means there’s no seat available for your entire trip. When you first get on, take a look around to see if there are any empty seats. Be prepared to give up your seats to the legitimate ticket holder as you approach a station, of course. On most Sunday night trains coming back to Seoul, it’ll be PACKED – something to experience once, but otherwise it’s worth avoiding.

Photo of K-Pop performers in South Korea
Photo of K-Pop Performers, South Korea © UNC – CFC – USFK

11. People tend to fall into one of two camps when it comes to K-pop: you love it or you tolerate it.

You’ll hear it almost everywhere you go, and there’s not much you can do about it. If it’s not K-pop, it’s either techno (even on a Monday morning!) or a selection of Western pop songs.

<<2019 Update>>

So, not sure if its just that I’ve grown up or that this has actually changed but there are a lot of genres of music in Korea now. And it seems to me like more and more Koreans are moving away from traditional KPOP style bands. But they will still know all the gossip and pop culture, just might not admit it.

12. Riding the bus – get on, pay your money, and get ready for a ride!

Bus drivers follow a couple rules of the road, but that’s about it. Don’t expect them to wait for you to find a seat or get your things situated – they don’t do that for the locals, and they don’t certainly don’t do that for the foreigners, either.

Photo of a bus ticket, South Korea
Photo of Bus Ticket, South Korea © LWY

<<2019 Update>>

Common theme on these updates… communicate! You can talk to your bus driver, even if its through a translation app on your phone (still don’t see many English speaking bus drivers) and let me know your situation. They will be accommodating for the most part.

*also, FYI thats an old picture of a bus ticket from Central City to Gwangju, its not quite that cheap anymore.

13. Speaking of buses, a number of in the front half of the bus are reserved for the old, the handicapped, and the pregnant.

Unless you happen to fit into one of those categories, make your way to the back of the bus. The older generation has no qualms about putting you in your place if you happen to be in ‘their’ seat! The same goes for the seats at either end of any subway car.

14. One of the biggest complaints among foreigners who live in Korea are the taxi drivers.

Most speak little English, although some might want to practice their English on you! Have your destination written in Korean if possible, and get in the car instead of asking through the window. Crossing town shouldn’t cost more than 35,000 Korean won (about $30 USD), unless there’s some serious traffic.

Uber does have a presence in Seoul (not other cities yet) but its more like a premium service. Most of the cars are high end cars and the drivers are older and have a lot of experience. Unless you get some kind of coupon or deep discount I would just stick with the regular taxis.

Photo of shop at an open market, South Korea
Photo of Shop in an Open Market, South Korea © Gaël Chardon

15. The easy rule to remember when bargaining: if a price is posted, it’s generally not open for negotiation; if no price is posted, take that as the first price offered.

Most places tend to offer a pretty fair price to begin with, so negotiation isn’t even really needed. If paying in cash, ask about a cash price – using a credit card will add a percentage to the final price, since most vendors will pass the transaction fee onto you. Department store or larger stores won’t charge extra to use a credit card, but you won’t find anyone willing to negotiate with you.

>>2019 Update<<

Negotiate all you want. More and more sellers, especially on the streets are just looking to get a customer. Posted prices or no, try a nego.

16. For better or worse, the Confucian mindset prevails and permeates throughout Korean culture.

Imagine a giant totem pole, where people stacked on top of each other. One is ‘above’ another based on their age, their gender, and their position in the working place. Therefore, don’t be offended when you’re asked your age. It’s a way of figuring out whether you’re above or below them. Age is actually just one of many ways of connecting. People want to find ways of having common ground with others that isn’t based on merit but on uncontrollable things like age. So just go along with it. If you are the same age as someone, show your enthusiasm.

17. If enjoying Korea on a Monday, you may notice a problem – lots of stores and sights are closed!

A lot of businesses are of the ‘mom-and-pop’ variety, and Monday is the best day to take a day off. A few places close on Sunday instead, leaving Monday an excellent day to go exploring. But keep in mind that you may not get the same customer service as you do in the big marts. The malls and nice restaurants will be super good service but the mom and pop shops might not even want to try and talk to you if you can’t speak Korean.  This is becoming more rare but just keep that in mind.

18. The country’s attitude towards recycling is wonderful – and sometimes completely ignored by the locals.

Don’t be that guy that stuffs food waste into the recycling bin or drops your bottle just because you can’t find a trash can. Any bathroom will have a trash can, and most subway stations have some by the turnstiles. Ask around to people about where you should throw things away. Most people know even though they might not follow it.

<<2019 Update>>

I’ve seen first hand that this is the case still. Remember save face, you don’t want people to see your not recycling but you may not be personally invested.

19. Speaking of bathrooms, the locals throw their used paper in a bin next to the commode instead of flushing it on down.

You’ll probably say this is unsanitary, and you’d be right. Public restrooms have gotten a lot better in recent years, but it’s still a good idea to keep a package of paper in your bag (or pick some up at a convenience store or the vending machine outside most subway station bathrooms)

Photo of a bottle of soju, Seoul, South Korea
Photo of Soju, Seoul South Korea © grahamhills

<<2019 Update>>

Ask Ask. Well maybe not the person in the next stall, but if there is a bin with toilet paper in it there will usually also be a sign (sometimes in English and Korean) telling you to throw away paper in the bin and not in the toilet. But most apartments and modern buildings have good plumbing. If that is the case then its pretty nasty and kind of rude to not flush that tp.

20. The last tip to pass on: watch out for the soju.

The green glass bottle of 20% ABV alcohol costs a mere 1,000 won at convenience stores (about 95 cents USD) and about twice that at a bar or restaurant. Drink it out of shot glasses, and sip judiciously unless you want to get drunk fast. A number of people prefer mixing it with yogurt (I personally enjoy cutting it with cranberry juice) to avoid the taste of rubbing alcohol. Alcohol is often the best way to meet people in Korea. I say meet but I mean get to know (been in Korea too long).