‘Although it’s Westernised in many ways, ancient South Korean customs remain an important part of daily life…’
Falling foul of South Korean customs when you visit the country carries the risk of offending your hosts. Therefore, it’s best to be prepared before you travel.
Orange/Pink Subway Seats
South Koreans are very respectful of their elders. To this end, there are specific orange seats on the metro specifically reserved for the elderly and infirm. In addition, there are single pink seats for pregnant women.
Even if they are no other seats, do *not* sit in the reserved areas. To do so will result in glares from across the carriages. And that’s just awkward for everyone. I did it so you don’t have to…
Don’t Wear Shoes Indoors
Like many Asian nations, it’s customary to remove your shoes when you enter someone’s home. We stayed in several Airbnb apartments during our trip and flip-flops were provided to ensure we removed our outdoor shoes.
South Koreans keep very clean floors at home and regularly use to them to sit on when eating. This custom of eating on the floor is still seen in many restaurants throughout the nation.
To keep your shoes on is offensive; particularly if you are visiting a South Korean household. However, even if you’re not, it’s best practice to always remove your shoes when coming in from outdoors.
Don’t Leave Your Chopsticks Sticking Out Of Your Bowl
When you finish a meal, don’t pop your chopsticks into the bowl with the ends sticking out. Although it can be the natural thing to do, as you might with a fork or spoon, it is not the done thing in many Asian nations, including SK.
The symbolism displayed by chopsticks sticking out of a rice bowl is something that’s associated with funerals in South Korea. Chopsticks wedged in bowls of rice is done to ‘feed the dead’ at traditional funerals.
Simply place your chopsticks at the side of your bowl and we’ll say no more about it.
Don’t Speak of Japan
It’s not advisable to venture into the political scene when chatting to South Koreans. To be honest, I’d recommend you steer clear of this regardless of where you go on holiday.
If you know anything about South Korea’s history, you will know that Japan isn’t a particularly popular nation. Given their history of invading Korea and the atrocities they inflicted upon its people, it’s safe to say the nations aren’t the best of friends. Despite Korea having gained their independence 100 years ago, there are still teal tensions between the two.
Also: never mention the Sea of Japan. There’s no such thing in South Korea. The ‘East Sea’ is the only way this body of water is referred to.
Please see above.
Whilst you will find your guides for any DMZ tour will be willing to talk about this; it’s their job to do so. Many South Korean families were split when the peninsula was divided and have never seen their relations again.
Naturally, the whole thing is incredibly upsetting. South Koreans live with the threat of the North on a day to day basis and asking them about it isn’t a great conversation starter.
It’s also best not to chat about it amongst yourselves when you’re out in public; particularly if you speak English. Korea is dual language and you’ll find they understand way more than you think.
It is customary for South Koreans to bow to each other. We found this happened a great deal; particularly when dealing with older citizens.
We made a point of bowing to say thanks during our trip. You can simply bow slightly, or also place your hands together in a praying motion while you do it. It will be appreciated that you’re showing respect to your hosts.
Pushing and Shoving
I found this South Korean custom quite difficult to come to terms with. I was brought up standing in a queue, waiting my turn. South Korea is way more crowded than the UK and no one gives a second thought to skipping in front of you.
This isn’t meant to be offensive or rude; it’s simply the way it is. Missing your bus or subway because someone’s in your way could make your day pretty difficult. Therefore, South Koreans tend to make sure they don’t find themselves in this position.
I found that little old ladies were lethal in this regard. They’re hard as nails and if they want to get somewhere, they’ll make sure you’re not blocking them. They have elbows like knives!
Lack of Smiling
It took me a few days of wondering just how miserable life was in Seoul to do any research into this. The lack of public smiling has nothing to do with how happy a people the Koreans are. They simply just don’t show it outwardly.
It can give them the impression of being quite a stern bunch, but when you speak to them you realise that’s not the case at all.
Keep these South Korean customs in mind when you visit and you’ll have no problems!