Korean Culture 101: Some Basics to Get You Started

Korean culture is full of unique and rich traditions; an entire lifetime isn’t enough to comprehend all that it has to offer. After immigrating to Canada at the age of 4, I was thrust into two conflicting worlds. And for the better part of my life, it was spent running away from my identity. But now wiser with age (lol), I feel confident enough to share some of the experiences I’ve been a part of.

Joseon Dynasty

The Joseon period in Korea lasted nearly 5 centuries, between 1392 to 1897. During this time, Chinese Confucian ideals became entrenched into Korean society. It’s legacy is still seen today as modern Korean etiquette, social norms, attitudes, the Korean language and its dialects can all trace its roots to this epoch in Korean history.

Greetings and First Meetings

As the saying goes, first impressions is a lasting impression. Korea is no exception. When meeting Koreans for the first time, particularly if you’ve been invited to their home, bringing a gift will go a long way toward leaving a favourable impression. The gift does not have to be expensive: a fruit basket, flowers, or liquor should usually suffice. Remember, it is not the gift itself that matters but the thought and courtesy.

The nature of your relationship will determine the following. Say you’re meeting friends of friends in an informal setting. In that case, a nod of the head and a smile will usually suffice. To really make a good impression, maybe even say hello in Korean (language tip: hello in Korean is “안녕하세요 – annyeong haseyo”).

In a formal meeting however (such as meeting your future in-laws), more respect should be given; in which case, it’s all in the bow. Put a lot of effort into the bow–your body should be between 135 to 90 degree angle. A handshake accompanies a bow but this applies mostly to men than women.

A fair warning: do NOT hug a Korean you’ve met for the first time. Same goes for a gentle grasp of the shoulder. Although the culture is gradually changing, it is still considered a personal violation to be hugged by someone who isn’t a close friend or relative.

Finally, when entering into the home of a Korean family, remember to take your shoes off.

Eating

So you’ve got the greetings out of the way and finally made your way to the dinner table. There are many different rules that must be followed when dining (plus knowing Korean table manners will surely impress your hosts).

Traditionally, Koreans have sat on cushions on the floor to eat from a low table. Although many have adopted the western-style of table and chair dining, sitting on the floor is still common in Korean restaurants today–and just like when entering into a Korean home, patrons are expected to remove their shoes.

Take note of the dining table setup. The placement from left to right should be as follows: rice bowl, spoon, and chopsticks. Hot foods such as soup or stew is placed on the right while cold foods like vegetables are on the left. The main course is often a protein dish in the form of beef, pork, or fish and is placed in the center, to be easily reached by all the diners.

Now that the dinner table is properly set, you can finally dig in and dine! But alas, respect for your elders is extremely important in Korean culture. So with that in mind, a meal will not start until the eldest or most senior at the table has begun eating. Also, you are to remain at the table until they have finished eating. So try to pace your eating with those around you.

While dining, you may be asked about your age, profession, education, and maybe even your parent’s careers. To the unsuspecting foreigner, such questions could come off as rude and invasive. It could certainly create an awkward dining experience if these questions make you, the guest, uncomfortable. In which case, politely give short answers to move the conversation forward to another topic.

While eating, remember not to raise your rice bowl to your mouth (that’s what utensils are for!). But also, utensils should never be put into the rice bowl in a standing-up position. Doing so resembles food offerings at a grave for ancestors and is seen as bad luck. The last thing you’d want to do is conjure up spirits at the dining table!

Drinking

After going over greeting and dining etiquette, you might be wondering to yourself: what’s with all these rules?! Never fear! There’s always alcohol to help take the edge off. But wait, even when drinking, there’s rules to be adhered to as well. If you haven’t figured it out by now, there’s rules (a lot of them!) to every aspect of Korean society so buckle up.

The most popular alcoholic beverage in Korea is soju (소주). In the past, soju was consumed upon the new year to drive out diseases and bad spirits–the word soju itself means a welcoming spring. When drinking with a group of Koreans, the purpose is for each other to open their hearts by talking and promote good fellowship.

So now that everyone has settled in, the festivities can start. To start, never pour your own drink. Let someone else pour it for you and in return, you are to do the same. Always be mindful of the glasses of your companions so that it’s never empty. If you don’t want to drink, leave your glass full. The first drink should never be refused, though if you turn down a drink 3 times, you simply won’t be offered any more.

When receiving a drink, hold the glass with your right hand while the left hand tightly holds the wrist of your right hand. Likewise, if you’re the one offering drink, use 2 hands to pour the drink into the glass. Using 2 hands to offer and receive anything is the polite and customary protocol in Korea.

Finally, when elders or those of a higher rank are present, you should turn your head when sipping your drink as a sign of respect. As mentioned previously, respecting those who are higher up on the pecking order is deeply embedded in Korean culture. And turning your back to drink is an easy way to show your deferential esteem for those individuals.

So there you have it. Knowing these rules to drinking etiquette will go a long way to making your experience more pleasurable. As one final mention, drinking yourself into a stupor is nothing to be ashamed of in Korea–it happens quite regularly. Just make sure you never make mention of it again (it’s as if it never happened!) and you’ll do just fine.

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