You may have mastered the art of the polite bow, worked out how to use the tricky steel chopsticks, and learnt a few words of the Korean language, but beware, you may upset new friends by accepting gifts with your hand in the wrong place. While even seasoned expats receive heartfelt congratulations for getting the easy bits right (some are even surprised when foreigners are able to use Korean money), there are still innumerable ways to offend the locals, and unfortunately it’s the things that are hardest to guess that are most likely to see you come a cropper.
Korea is often said to be the world’s most Confucian nation, such values having been instilled for over a thousand years across several dynasties. Elements of Confucianism still linger on today – it’s still basically true that anyone older, richer or more important than you (or just male as opposed to female) is simply “better” and deserving of more respect, a fact that becomes sorely clear to many working in Korea. Perhaps most evident to foreigners will be what amounts to a national obsession with age – you’re likely to be asked how old you are soon after your first meeting with any Korean, and any similarity of birth years is likely to be greeted with a genuine whoop of delight (note that Koreans count years differently from Westerners – children are already 1 when they’re born, and gain another digit at Lunar New Year, meaning that those born on December 31 are technically two years old the next day). Women have traditionally been treated as inferior to men, and expected to ditch their job as soon as they give birth to their first child; however, recent years have shown a marked shift towards gender equality, with males more forgiving in the home and women more assertive in the workplace. Foreigners are largely exempt from the code of conduct that would be required of both parties following their knowledge of age, employment and background, and little is expected of them in such terms, but this does have its drawbacks – in such an ethnically homogeneous society, those that aren’t Korean will always remain “outsiders”, even if they speak the language fluently or have actually spent their whole lives in the country. Meanwhile, foreigners with Korean blood will be expected to behave as a local would, even if they can’t speak a word of the language.
The East Asian concept of “face” is very important in Korea, and known here as gibun; the main goal is to avoid the embarrassment of self or others. Great lengths are taken to smooth out awkward situations, and foreigners getting unnecessarily angry are unlikely to invoke much sympathy. This occasionally happens as the result of an embarrassed smile, the traditional Korean retort to an uncomfortable question or incident; remember that they’re not laughing at you (even if they’ve just dropped something on your head), merely trying to show empathy or move the topic onto safer ground. Foreigners may also see Koreans as disrespectful: nobody’s going to thank you for holding open a door, and you’re unlikely to get an apology if bumped into (which is almost inevitable on the subway). Dressing well has long been important, but though pretty much anything goes for local girls these days, foreign women may be assumed to be brazen hussies (or Russian prostitutes) if they wear revealing clothing.
Foreigners will see Koreans bowing all the time, even during telephone conversations. Though doing likewise will do much to endear you to locals, don’t go overboard – a full, right-angled bow would only be appropriate for meeting royalty (and the monarchy ended in 1910). Generally, a short bow with eyes closed and the head directed downwards will do just fine, but it’s best to observe the Koreans themselves, and the action will become quite natural after a short time; many visitors find themselves inadvertently maintaining the habit long after they’ve left. Attracting attention is also done differently here – you beckon with fingers fluttering beneath a downward-facing palm, rather than with your index fingers protruding hook-like from an upturned one.
Koreans are great lovers of business cards, which are exchanged in all meetings that have even a whiff of commerce about them. The humble rectangles garner far greater respect than they do in the West, and folding or stuffing one into a pocket or wallet is a huge faux pas – accept your card with profuse thanks, leave it on the table for the duration of the meeting, and file it away with respect (a card-holder is an essential purchase for anyone here on business). Also note that it’s seen as incredibly rude to write someone’s name in red ink – this colour is reserved for names of those who have died, a practice that most Koreans seem to think goes on all around the world.
If you’re lucky enough to be invited to a Korean home, try to bring a gift – fruit, chocolates and flowers go down well. The offering is likely to be refused at first, and probably on the second attempt too – persevere and it will eventually be accepted with thanks. The manner of receiving is also important – the receiving hand should be held from underneath by the non-receiving one, the distance up or down the arm dependent on exactly how polite you want to be. This will only come with experience and will not be expected of most foreigners, but you will be expected to take your shoes off once inside the house or apartment, so try to ensure that your socks are clean and hole-free.
Korea’s Confucian legacy can often be a great boon to foreigners, as it has long been customary for hosts (usually “betters”) to pay – many English teachers get taken out for regular slap-up meals by their bosses, and don’t have to pay a dime. Koreans also tend to make a big show of trying to pay, with the bill passing rapidly from hand to hand until the right person coughs up. Nowadays things are changing slowly – “going Dutch” is increasingly common where it would once have been unthinkable – but there are still innumerable codes of conduct; Koreans will usually guide foreigners through the various dos and don’ts. Many surround the use of chopsticks – don’t use these to point or to pick your teeth, and try not to spear food with them unless your skills are really poor. It’s also bad form, as natural as it may seem, to leave your chopsticks in the bowl: this is said to resemble incense sticks used after a death, but to most Koreans it just looks wrong (just as many Westerners obey unwritten and seemingly meaningless rules governing cutlery positions). Just leave the sticks balanced on the rim of the bowl.
Many Korean meals are group affairs, and this has given rise to a number of rules surrounding who serves the food from the communal trays to the individual ones – it’s usually the youngest woman at the table. Foreign women finding themselves in this position will be able to mop up a great deal of respect by performing the duty, though as there are particular ways to serve each kind of food, it’s probably best to watch first. The serving of drinks is a little less formal, though again the minutiae of recommended conduct could fill a small book – basically, you should never refill your own cup or glass, and should endeavour to keep topped up those belonging to others. The position of the hands is important – watch to see how the Koreans are doing it (both the pourer and the recipient), and you’ll be increasing your “face” value in no time.
One big no-no is to blow your nose during the meal – preposterously unfair, given the spice level of pretty much every Korean dish. Should you need to do so, make your excuses and head to the toilets. It’s also proper form to wait for the head of the table – the one who is paying, in other words – to sit down first, as well as to allow them to be the first to stand at the end of the meal. The latter can be quite tricky, as many Korean restaurants are sit-on-the-floor affairs that play havoc on the knees and backs of foreigners unaccustomed to the practice.
All in all, Koreans will tolerate anything viewed as a “mistake” on the part of the foreigner, and offer great encouragement to those who are at least attempting to get things right. This can sometimes go a little too far – you’re likely to be praised for your chopstick-handling abilities however long you’ve been around, and it’s almost impossible to avoid the Korean Catch-22: locals love to ask foreigners questions during a meal, but anyone stopping to answer will likely fail to keep pace with the fast-eating Koreans, who will then assume that your dish is not disappearing quickly because you don’t like it.