Local traditions and culture in South Korea

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    Eating Etiquette

    by jburron Updated Jan 7, 2005

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    In addition to Seating Arrangements you should also know a few more things about eating in Korea (or with Koreans in general, especially-I repeat: especially-OLDER Koreans).

    (i) The pace is set by the oldest MAN at the table (not woman as us well-mannered Westerners are used to). You may only begin eating after the oldest man has started and you should do you best to finish when he does as well.

    (ii) Koreans spoon their soup from the outside in (not vice versa as Emily Post advises). This is so as not to 'push' something (an aura?) onto your guests.

    (iii) Koreans often eat with their mouth open and may belch at the table (espcially the Alpha males, they can pretty much do as they please). If this bothers you then you should probably keep quiet until you find some way to get the point to him that it makes you uncomfortable (this is harder if you are in Korea, as it's his turf).

    (iv) You should NEVER NEVER NEVER offer anything to anyone with your left hand: only your right. (Although you could use your left if you are middle-aged or better and are giving it to your child or a child you know VERY well.) The more senior/important the recipient the more respectfully you should give it. This is shown by the placement of your left hand on your right arm: on your elbow is moderate respect, on your wrist is higher respect, on your hand is higher still and using both hands (with a bow) is highest. Always err on the more formal side if in doubt. Friends do not have to use two hands, but let the Korean tell you when this is so.

    (v) If someone's (especially an older male's) glass is empty be sure to offer to refill it (keep in mind hand placement). Don't fill it on the table, wait until they hold it and bring it up to the bottle. Don't hold the bottle above the glass, but touch it to the rim. (This way if the receiver is drunk/full they can gently raise the glass and cut off the pour without hurt feelings.)

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    Eating Etiquette II

    by jburron Updated Jan 8, 2005

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    More to know:

    (vi) Koreans don't eat in courses, everything comes (more or less) whenever it is ready to be served and you should eat from every dish from time to time.

    (vii) Your rice and soup are important. Usually Koreans finish them when they are full/finished eating. If you devour yours they will ask if you want more. If you don't get more they will be very confused; just take a bit more and eat some of it and try to finish at the end of the meal.

    (viii) There are always many side-dishes in a Korean meal. If you like one then have as much as you like, they will refill it.

    (ix) When giving food/serving to someone else never give just one portion/ladel-full. Give 2 or more. When someone says, "Just a little," then give them a lot. When they say, "Enough," give them one more helping.

    (x) At a cooking table (e.g., 갈비/kalbi or 삼겹살./sam-gyup-sal) the most junior person should do the cooking (preferably the lowest-ranking woman, male-dominated society that Korea is).

    (xi) At the end of a meal where you have rice in a large bowl (e.g., 비빔밥/bi-bim-bap) it's polite to put some water in the bowl after the meal is done. This shows respect to the host/cook by making it easier to clean and also kind of shows that you could not finish all of it (this is good in Korea because it indicates that they served you too much-which translates to 'enough' food).

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    ABC = Always Be Carrying (a Gift)

    by jburron Written Jan 5, 2005

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    Koreans, like many Asians, have a seemingly ingrainged need to bring a gift to every home they visit. Here in the West (maybe it's just my crowd) we have some special parties where gifts are brought and we have B.Y.O.B. (Bring Your Own Booze) gatherings where you tote your own 'gift' but mostly people are asked to 'just bring yourselves'. Koreans could never do such a thing. Because of this, there is are corner stores and street-sellers all over the place (hence, perhaps, why Koreans end up as store-owners when they move elsewhere).

    Appropriate gifts are: fruit (oranges, apples, pears, grapes); juice (same fruits); 떡/ddeok (rice cakes-there are about 100 varieties); or perhaps something (especially food) from your home country if you're from out-of-town (which you likely are if you're reading this).

    The important thing is to bring something.

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    Eating Etiquette III

    by jburron Written Jan 7, 2005

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    Still more to know:

    (vi) Never blow your nose at the table. Even with a hanky this is bad manners.

    (vii) Do not leave your soup spoon in your bowl or your chopstick in food (you know how to use these, right?). It's bad luck. This is well-known in Japan but not as rigidly followed in Korea, but if you do it near a conservative eater you're in trouble.

    (viii) Never finish the last of a dish (as if you could, as most Korean hosts and restaurants just bring you more and more food). If there are 2-3 pieces left it's a good idea to choose the best one and give it to the oldest man at the table. Same goes for fruit if it's served at the end. Either give the oldest man the best piece or offer the plate to him before taking your own.

    (ix) At the end of the meal tell your host, server and cook (if you can): 잘 먹었습니다/jal-meo-geo-seum-ni-da
    (that was a delicious meal/I ate well). If you can't remember the Korean then the English will do, but even if you are the most senior person there you should say it. (If you're senior you can use: 잘 먹어요 / jal-meo-geo-yo, a less formal form; but only if you know the people there well.)

    (x) Finally, the man/oldest person at the table always pays the bill .

    Got all that? If you do you're on track to eat well in Korea (and be invited back for more).

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    Work, School and Church are Big in Korea

    by jburron Updated Jan 5, 2005

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    When a Korean picks up the phone they ask "Who are you?" and "Where are you from?" For a Westerner this would mean: what country are you from; but for Koreans it's to find out what company one is from. (Interestingly, and against Emily Post's etiquette rules, Koreans have no qualms in asking country of origin and forming opinions based on that, it seems.) The usual response is something like, "I'm Park Jung-Hee from Samsung Life."

    As you may have guessed, work is a big thing in Koreans' lives. It's-substantially-better socially to be employed by a large chaebol (conglomerate) such as Samsung, LG, Hyundai, Daewoo, Ssangyong or Lotte rather than a smaller one.

    School is another big tie. The big schools are (in order): Seoul National University, Korea University and Yonsei University. Next is Kyunghee University and 'the others'. For women's schools the preeminent one is Ewha Women's University (it is on par with Seoul National in ranking). Having a degree from the top schools not only gives an education which is much more rigorous than that in the West (albeit based on rote) but also access to the connections therein and the social status it brings.

    Church is another pillar of Korean society. About half of Koreans are Christian (mostly Protestant, thanks to the Yeouido Full Gospel Church) and many are Catholic, with Buddhists as well-most of the Buddhists are in the south-especially Pusan. Here is another place where people can meet, eat and share an affinity (three very Korean activities).

    When they move elsewhere, many Koreans keep these 3 things in mind in the new country. So, if you're meeting a Korean for work or pleasure you may want to state: where you work, where you went to school and what church you go to (if none, or if non-Christian or Buddhist it may be best to stay 'mum' on the subject).

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    Commemorative Towels

    by jburron Written Dec 21, 2004

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    When I look around Korean bathrooms (not that I snoop...), including my own, I see an odd sight: towels with (Korean) words on them and a date. They kind of look like the logos on hotel towels (none of those in my loo!) but seem a bit different.

    What are they? Commemorative towels, of course. If a grand event (60th birthday, baby's 100-day ceremony, business opening) occurs some Koreans have special towels made with writing and the date on them and then give them to attendees or special people.

    Maybe at one time towels were expensive and/or a luxury item but they seem a little redundant, but I can tell you that you sure remember it: seeing it in the laundry, in the linen closet and hanging in the john. Very intersting.

    Here is one...no idea what for, though.

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    Textmessaging is #1 in Korea

    by jburron Updated Apr 4, 2011

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    Texting (as it's called) is not that big in Canada (no one can justify the 10 cents it costs per message, so they'd rather call and blow 50 cents, I guess) but it's BIG in Korea. I was a convert as well...sending and receiving 9,000 (4,500 incoming, 4,500 outgoing) texts in about 5 months (as well as 100 or so pictures). There are many reasons why I loved it so much:

    (i) it's private - no one knows what you are reading and writing (especially good if you're juggling social engagements or job-hunting, you can even reply when in a meeting if you need to);
    (ii) it's immediate, but can be delayed - like email it can sit there and you can read it anytime (like when you wake up or finish a meeting);
    (iii) it's non-intrusive - without a ring and hello you need not feel burdened by a text;
    (iv) it's simple - I even learned the hanguel easily and found it to be very simple and faster to use (faster than English in some cases!);
    (v) it's written - this is obvious, but if your sender or recipient is non-native speaker there can be burden and confusion in any conversation, texting allows both sides to consult friends or dictionaries to get meanings straight;
    (vi) it's semi-permanent - espcially for addresses or meeting times, this is a big plus (no need for pen and paper or a PDA, it's in your phone!)

    So, if you go to Korea learn the text functions quickly--you'll need them!

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    Playing Go-Stop is Fun!

    by jburron Updated Apr 4, 2011

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    I vaguely remember getting my first 화투/hwa-too (what Koreans call a deck of Go-Stop cards) when I was about 10 years old. I got them from a relative who thought it would be good for me to learn. Unfortunately, the rules are so complicated (and I learn from doing, not reading) and no one else knew the game so they all vanished.

    It is a fun, game, though. Usually only older Korean MEN play it, but now younger ones and even (horrors!) women are playing it as well. There are 12 suits (one for each month) and 4 cards in each suit, but that's where the fleeting similarity to Western cards ends.

    I could go into explainging all the rules, but Yahoo has a good run-down on it here:
    http://games.yahoo.com/games/rules/gostop/gostop_cards.html?page=gs

    The Old Guys having fun.

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    Suicides are Reported, Common in Korea

    by jburron Updated May 24, 2008

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    I wasn't sure where to post this, it's not really a Warning/Danger and doesn't really affect foreigners/travellers, but you may come across it.

    Basically, Koreans are in a very stratified and rigid society with rules that dictate much of their lives and little leeway for failure in some cases. What's the honorable way out? Well, for some it's suicide. Those who fail in business, school SATs/entrance exams or have a scandal attached to them can fall victim to depression and thoughts of suicide. The difference, it seems, is Koreans get up and do it. I say get up because due to the lack of handguns in Korea many choose to jump from a bridge or building rather than blow their brains out.

    The most troubling thing (at least for us Westerners who are not used to it) is the news reports suicides. We don't do this in the West because it's thought that reporting it leads to more suicides as people join the crowd. (In Korea, where being in the in-group is very important you'd think they had caught on to this and stopped reporting them!).

    More info here, here, here, here, here and here.
    Update here.

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    Koreans Rarely Understand Sex or Gay Jokes

    by jburron Updated Feb 1, 2005

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    It's hard enough asking literal-minded Koreans (who, by the way, will assume whatever you say first to be more true than whatever you may correct or add later in your dealings with them) to figure out (Western) sarcasm but if you add double entendres and slang things get even tougher.

    This can get pretty hilarious, as foreigners can get away with saying almost anything and no one would be the wiser. Also, Koreans mix up words and sayings for some unintended comic effect as well (one friend of mine always texted me "I'm getting off now!" when leaving work or stepping off the subway...of course this is only one of many examples).

    Also, in my gym they always played a rather dodgy song that had to do with licking a 'cat' and such...but none of the Koreans there had a clue what it was about.

    This can make getting one's point across a little tougher, though. And, if you explain the hidden meanings Koreans tend to think that all Western people think about is sex (maybe it's just me, though)...but they are the ones with the neon signs advertising massages (you know the kind of which I type) and other services on almsot every street.

    Go figure.

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    DVD-bang Means Going Steady

    by jburron Written Dec 20, 2004

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    Bang means room in Korean, in case you're getting any ideas. DVD-bangs sprung up a while back to allow those with only a few bucks to go see a movie in private (and without having to buy a DVD player). Now that DVD-bang prices are a little higher (about 11,000 won/10USD for 2, compared to theatres at 7,000 won each) and most people can buy a DVD player for cheap why do people go? To neck/kiss, or something like that.

    Basically, it's where Korean kids (teenagers as well as those into their 20s and 30s who likely live at home until they are married) can have a couple of hours alone to do what they like. There is even toilet paper in there and a trash can! Well, I'm sure things don't get too crazy, as there are always little windows into the rooms (if anyone looks into them, I have no idea, but they always have a blind spot that one can exploit as well) and the doors are not locked.

    So if someone of the opposite sex asks you to go to a DVD-bang it could be for more than you think.

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    Love Hotels

    by jburron Written Dec 20, 2004

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    Everyone knows that space is at a premium in Korea (Seoul especially) and that can impinge on a guy/gal's ability to get intimate. Most kids live with their parents until they are married so taking the girl/boyfriend back home is not an option (Korean parents rarely stand for ANY hanky-panky) so there are DVDbangs (also did a tip on these) and Love Hotels. (Of course, the love hotels are also frequented by cheating spouses, but let's assume it's more innocent than that.)

    These range from the dingy to the higher class (Hotel Kobos and Ben Hur, 2 that I reviewed are higher-class ones, and can be appropriate for 'normal' stays as well). Rates vary from 30,000 won/25USD for the afternoon to about 90,000 won for a night (a good deal if you're looking for a nice room!).

    You'll know them because (i) they are clustered around the major metropolitan areas; (ii) they are tall buildings that are usually a little spartan/gaudy in decor and (iii) they take cash and don't ask your name.

    All in all, they can be good for travellers (especially couples, of course) but I wouldn't publicize where you're staying if you're in town on business.

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    Jeonse...Not Your Usual Rental Contract.

    by jburron Updated Apr 4, 2011

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    'Regular' rental contracts are becoming more popular in Korea (especially Seoul) but most are still based on the Jeon-se system.

    Jeon-se involves the renter putting up about 50% of the market value of the home (apartment, usually) with the owner. The owner then must pay back that sum at the end of the contract (often 2 years; usually a 1 year minimum). The renter does not pay rent, but instead gives up the opportunity cost on the money (Korean interest rates are higher than in the West by about 1-2%) and if the property appreciates by the time the contract ends the renter will have to put up more money to stay in the place (and vice versa).

    Some officetels (read: small apartments of about 300-400 sqft) have a combination: rent may be $500 a month and the deposit may be $5,000.

    As mentioned, others are pure rentals (minimal deposit) but that is usually only in special locations where foreigners frequent (near Itaewon, usually).

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    Korean Negotiating

    by jburron Updated Dec 21, 2004

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    Probably not a big deal for travellers, unless you can use some of this for bargaining when shopping, but for business people this is quite important.

    Koreans look for a few things in products, services and providers/suppliers: (i) they should be the original one (e.g., Levi's 501 jeans); (ii) they should be world-renown (e.g., Hoover); (iii) they should be large (e.g., Fidelity); (iv) they should be experienced/the oldest (e.g., Microsoft); and (v) they should either have a local branch, a local partner or be ready to obtain either in short order.

    Korean negotiating happens over a few days and nights (and a few sessions usually, as well), so thinking one can go there for the afternoon and get a contract is poppycock. The first meeting, in the office, would be to say hello, then off to dinner and the bars (they don't accept that people can have jetlag or hangovers sometimes) and then all-day negotiating the next and another night out (if you're lucky/doing well) to seal the deal.

    Most firms spend years wining and dining (and vice versa) in order to get that first contract, but once that comes the next should follow more easily. That having been said, it usually requires rigorous and constant follow-up in order to continue the relationship. So, bring a strong liver, an empty stomach and fly business class so you can lessen the effects of jetlag.

    As for negotiating, Koreans usually ask for absolutely everything under the sun at first and then 'give up' the useless points in order to get concessions from the other side. I've also seen them dream up new clauses to agreements 'after the lawyers look at them' (meaning, after they figure out they can get more, it seems).

    And, if you hear the word 'impossible' it may or may not be so, depending on how much the other side can bend as well.

    Best of luck in The Hermit Kingdom.

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    Korean Dating Habits (Part II)

    by jburron Written Dec 21, 2004

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    Here's a tough one for us Western guys: when a Korean girl says no (ahn-day, a-ni-yo or ha-ji-ma in Korean) while you're making advances it may mean a few things:

    (i) No means no. No way. Never. Go away!

    (ii) Not now; I'm not comfortable; not in a public place; my parents are home.

    (iii) If you do it again I will say no, but then I will say not stop you.

    (iv) If you do it again I'll surely not stop you because this is exactly what I want.

    It seems the safe thing for a gal to say is no, even when she means yes. I'm sure libbers out there (or those from the West) will think me an unthinking clod for saying this, but in Korea things are different. No may mean many things, as might yes. Yes (nay or yay in Korean) may mean:

    (i) Yes, I agree.

    (ii) Yes, I see your side of this but I have another, opinion (which I may not ever tell you).

    (iii) Yes, I hear you but don't really understand your thinking, but to make things easier I will act as if I do, hoping to figure it out later (in life).

    (iv) Yes, I kind of heard you but I wasn't paying attention. You'd better say that again, but I may not tell you this and let you assume that I am thinking (i).

    (v) I have no clue that you are even talking, but I can see your mouth move a mile a minute so I'll just say something and hope I can make a break for it sometime soon.

    This goes for speaking with Koreans in general, actually; so stay on your toes and try as much as possible to ensure that everyone is on the same page.

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