Etiquette in South Korea

South Korea, located directly between China and Japan, is home to over 41 million people who live there.  South Korens value family and respect for their parents and elders.  Seniority and hierarchy are important in their way of life.  South Korea, much like Japan, has its own culture and customs.

South Korea is a homogenous society and has ancestry from Siberia, Inner Mongolia, and Manchuria.

Korean is the official language. There are no similarites in the South Korean and Chinese languages, however, Chinese characters were used to make the South Korean alphabet.

Buddhism is the most practiced religion, but you may still observe Confucianism and Shamanism. Now, more than 40 percent of the population is comprised of Christians.

Won is the currency that is used in South Korea.

Conversation Etiquette

South Koreans are affable and outgoing people when doing business.

Acceptable topics of conversation are Korean cultural heritage, kites, sports, and health of the other’s family. Conversation topics that should be avoided are local politics, Socialism, Communism, North Korea, Japan, and the host’s wife.

Dining Etiquette

In Korea, the largest meal of the day is dinner served between 6 and 8 p.m. Since Koreans eat with chopsticks, do not be afraid if your skills with them are not up to the same level. They will appreciate your attempts.

Koreans prefer to entertain guests in restaurants or coffee shops and rarely at their homes. If you are invited for a meal at their home, understand that this is a great honor and following these rules are essential in creating a better friendship with your host. When entering their home, take off your shoes immediately and make sure the toes are pointed away from the building. Unlike in America, where a tour of the home can be requested, do not make such a request in a Korean home. You should not wander around the home or look into rooms such as the kitchen as this is seen as very rude.

You may be invited out after business hours to bar, dinner with a lot of alcohol, or a Kisaeng house. Be careful when you are drinking with your Korean hosts. Remember that all promises and direct opinions will be taken seriously.

When invited out for a meal, the person who does the inviting is expected to pay. When the bill comes, good-natured arguments over who will pay for the meal is to be expected. At a meal, it is polite for the younger member to pay for the older.

Koreans use chopsticks for solid foods and a porcelain spoon for soup. When you are finished your meal, place your chopsticks on the table or on the chopstick rest. Never – under any circumstance – place them parallel on top of the bowl. This is seen as a sign of bad luck. You should also never leave your chopsticks sticking out of your rice bowl as it is insulting since that is how offerings are made to ancestors.

Meeting & Greeting Etiquette

Many young South Koreans have adopted western methods of doing business, members of the older generation still place emphasis on traditional values. Punctuality is important for both social events and business meetings.  Your Korean counterpart may not be as punctual.

Age and rank are extremely important in Korea.  Do not be offended if Koreans ask you personal questions in order to discern your position or age. Unlike in America where people communicate in a more informal and friendly tone, one should retain a tone of formality as long as your counterpart does. You should never enter a home or office until you are invited and do not sit down until you are prompted to do so.

Koreans place a lot of emphasis on strong personal connections. They tend to be wary of those whom they do not know or do not have a mutual contact with. If you wish to meet someone do not introduce yourself, but rather employ a third person to make the introductions. When entering a business meeting, the most senior person enters first, followed by the next highest ranking person, and so forth. Koreans will line up in order of importance. During a business meeting, the most junior person will bow and do the introductions. The most senior person will be the one to offer his hand.

When meeting a person, bow at the beginning and end. A meeting that went well will be shown through the exit bow. The longer the exit bow the better the meeting went. In Korea, always address a person by his family name along with his title when meeting them. When talking with them remember that eye contact is very important since it shows sincerity and attentiveness to the speaker.

Korean men greet each other with a slight bow and accompanying handshake while maintaining eye contact. To show added respect, support your right forearm with your left hand while shaking. Women rarely shake hands.

Men from western nations should not shake hands with a Korean woman. Women from western nations should not expect a handshake with Korean men, but rather will need to initiate it.  If the man is older than the woman then the woman should not initiate a handshake but wait to respond if one is offered.

The elderly are highly respected in Korean culture and it is a good idea to greet and to spend a few moments speaking with them first. You should never smoke or wear sunglasses near them and if you are close to a doorway, always allow for them to pass first. You can show added respect to an older Korean by touching your left hand with the palm facing up lightly to your right elbow when shaking hands or passing things such as food or documents.

One must be careful when admiring an object that belongs to a Korean. An overt display of admiration may make a Korean feel obligated to give it to you.

Business cards are extremely important to Koreans when doing business. Cards are important since they indicate rank which in turn will allow Koreans to know how much respect you deserve in their culture. You should never write on a business card. You should always offer your business card with your right hand. Your name, company, and title should be printed in English on one side and Korean on the other. It is extremely disrespectful to place a Korean’s business card in your wallet if you intend to place your wallet in your back pocket.

First impressions are very important in Korea. Leaving a bad impression may not only affect your interactions with the person whom you may have inadvertently insulted, but also their family, friends, and other contacts.