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20 Things You Must Know About Korean Culture

A foreign country means foreign customs and cultures – exactly what most of us are looking for. While Korea is quite modernized in many ways, there are some eccentricities to expect while in Korea. If you really want to dig into Korean culture you need to learn the language. Click here to visit Korean Class 101 to get started learning online.

Before the list lets take a quick look at some general ideas about Korean history and language.

Here’s What You Need to Know About Korean Culture:

  1. Take off your shoes when you arrive – or not.
  2. Don’t be too surprised to see the locals using their middle finger
  3. For most locals, English is sorely lacking
  4. The Seoul subway system is huge
  5. Ladies, the typical local has little problem showing off their legs

(Continue Reading the rest of the list below)

Korea has a history of being isolated and neutral. They have changed a lot during the 2oth and 21st Centuries. There is a strong social family feeling. To fit in with the culture you need to show interest in the language. It is also a good idea to try all the food and learn to love it.

Korea feels a bit like an ‘inside group’.  You remember when you try to talk to a group of friends and they laugh about something random and then say “oh that’s an inside joke, sorry.” You feel kind of left out and wanting to know what the story behind that joke was.  I feel like the whole country of Korea is like that.

>>Click here to Read Eye Opening List of Differences between Koreans and Americans<<

But admission to that “group” requires some basic things: proficiency in the language, a love of the food, and unfortunately a Korean face. This is not always the case but I’d say around 80% of the time (as of this writing in 2017) if you have at least 2 of those 3 things you can fit in culturally.

So keep this in mind as you travel to Korea.  That the people here have always had a strong identity and that identity is strongly associated with their language and appearance. Once you pass the first few months of welcome then you may start to wonder why you can’t seem to get “in.” Don’t worry. It isn’t easy. But the people I have seen succeed are always those who just stay positive and learn to love the food.

And Now for the List of the Top 20 Things You Must Know About Korean Culture

Photo of shoes outside a temple, South Korea

1. Take off your shoes when you arrive – or not.

An increasing number of time-crunched locals are going the Western way and keeping their shoes on their feet. Since you probably won’t know which camp your host is in, follow their lead to be absolutely sure.

2. Don’t be too surprised to see the locals using their middle finger to point, tap a touch screen, or otherwise refer to something.

There’s no insult intended with the gesture – it’s just the longest finger hitting the button first.

Photo of a sign with a poor English translation, Jeju Island South Korea
Photo of Poor English Translation, Jeju Island South Korea © benkucinski

3. For most locals, English is sorely lacking

This means good job prospects for English teachers, but finding a local to communicate in good English is a tall order. Don’t be surprised to be mistaken for an English teacher, and try to handle their practiced questions gracefully.

4. The Seoul subway system is huge, the lines sometimes long, and the ajummas are pushy.

The trains don’t run 24 hours, however, so making a long trip or more than one transfer after 11pm begins to push it. Instead, keep your eyes for some of the buses that run well after the subways shut down. Several late-night buses leave from Yangjae station (line 3) while others leave from Sadang station (line 4). If you’re close to one of those stations, try one of the buses there before resorting to a taxi.

5. Ladies, the typical local has little problem showing off their legs – thus the abundance of short shorts and skirts.

Most of the locals would look (stare) at someone with uncovered shoulders, however. Don’t ask me what’s going through their minds – just avoid sleeveless shirts or spaghetti strap shirts. Also cleavage is getting to be more common but in general the rule is cover the top and show off the legs. (unless you want to be stared at then go with the opposite 🙂

>>Click here to go over to Korean Class 101 and start learning Korean.<<

6. Men, if out on a date, be prepared to pay for most everything.

Equality in paying is becoming more common, but a woman might lose face if she’s the one handing over a card. This goes double if you’re the oldest one at the table. And split checks is usually frown upon especially by the restaurant so if you want to split up the check with friends then its best to do it on your own and not involve the restaurant.

Photo of a hooka lounge in Hongdae, Seoul South Korea
Photo of Hongdae Hooka Lounge, Seoul South Korea © seafaringwoman

7. Hongdae and Itaewon are the two most popular areas with foreigners that like to party.

If you like to be catered to and see English menus, you’ll feel right at home. If you came to experience the Korean version of nightlife, get thee to Kondae (Konkuk University, line 2) or Sinchon (also line 2). While some foreigners also visit these areas, you’ll notice fewer English menus (a great chance to practice your Korean!)

8. Speaking of Sinchon, there’s actually two of them.

One is Sinchon (pronounce it ‘Sin-CHOWN’) and is in northwest Seoul near Hongdae. The other is Sincheon (pronounce it ‘Sin-CHAWN’) and is in southeast Seoul near Jamsil. More than a few locals have to pronounce it carefully to make sure they meet their friends at the same one!

9. When you’re ready for a day trip out of Seoul, the country is your oyster.

Virtually all of mainland Korea is roundtrippable in one day, thanks to an excellent train and express bus system. While the locals often reserve their tickets ahead of time, the process is bit harder for foreigners to do. Your best bet is to head to a train station, where you can reserve tickets well ahead of time – in ENGLISH! – through an automated ticketing machine.

10. Speaking of trains, sometimes the train has sold out of seats and you’ll have to take a standing room ticket.

This does not mean you’ll be standing the whole time. It just means there’s no seat available for your entire trip. When you first get on, take a look around to see if there are any empty seats. Be prepared to give up your seats to the legitimate ticket holder as you approach a station, of course. On most Sunday night trains coming back to Seoul, it’ll be PACKED – something to experience once, but otherwise it’s worth avoiding.

Photo of K-Pop performers in South Korea
Photo of K-Pop Performers, South Korea © UNC – CFC – USFK

11. People tend to fall into one of two camps when it comes to K-pop: you love it or you tolerate it.

You’ll hear it almost everywhere you go, and there’s not much you can do about it. If it’s not K-pop, it’s either techno (even on a Monday morning!) or a selection of Western pop songs.

12. Riding the bus – get on, pay your money, and get ready for a ride!

Bus drivers follow a couple rules of the road, but that’s about it. Don’t expect them to wait for you to find a seat or get your things situated – they don’t do that for the locals, and they don’t certainly don’t do that for the foreigners, either.

Photo of a bus ticket, South Korea
Photo of Bus Ticket, South Korea © LWY

13. Speaking of buses, a number of in the front half of the bus are reserved for the old, the handicapped, and the pregnant.

Unless you happen to fit into one of those categories, make your way to the back of the bus. The older generation has no qualms about putting you in your place if you happen to be in ‘their’ seat! The same goes for the seats at either end of any subway car.

14. One of the biggest complaints among foreigners who live in Korea are the taxi drivers.

Most speak little English, although some might want to practice their English on you! Have your destination written in Korean if possible, and get in the car instead of asking through the window. Crossing town shouldn’t cost more than 25,000 Korean won (about $23 USD), unless there’s some serious traffic.

Uber does have a presence in Seoul (not other cities yet) but its more like a premium service. Most of the cars are high end cars and the drivers are older and have a lot of experience. Unless you get some kind of coupon or deep discount I would just stick with the regular taxis.

Photo of shop at an open market, South Korea
Photo of Shop in an Open Market, South Korea © Gaël Chardon

15. The easy rule to remember when bargaining: if a price is posted, it’s generally not open for negotiation; if no price is posted, take that as the first price offered.

Most places tend to offer a pretty fair price to begin with, so negotiation isn’t even really needed. If paying in cash, ask about a cash price – using a credit card will add a percentage to the final price, since most vendors will pass the transaction fee onto you. Department store or larger stores won’t charge extra to use a credit card, but you won’t find anyone willing to negotiate with you.

16. For better or worse, the Confucian mindset prevails and permeates throughout Korean culture.

Imagine a giant totem pole, where people stacked on top of each other. One is ‘above’ another based on their age, their gender, and their position in the working place. Therefore, don’t be offended when you’re asked your age. It’s a way of figuring out whether you’re above or below them. Age is actually just one of many ways of connecting. People want to find ways of having common ground with others that isn’t based on merit but on uncontrollable things like age. So just go along with it. If you are the same age as someone, show your enthusiasm.

17. If enjoying Korea on a Monday, you may notice a problem – lots of stores and sights are closed!

A lot of businesses are of the ‘mom-and-pop’ variety, and Monday is the best day to take a day off. A few places close on Sunday instead, leaving Monday an excellent day to go exploring. But keep in mind that you may not get the same customer service as you do in the big marts. The malls and nice restaurants will be super good service but the mom and pop shops might not even want to try and talk to you if you can’t speak Korean.  This is becoming more rare but just keep that in mind.

18. The country’s attitude towards recycling is wonderful – and sometimes completely ignored by the locals.

Don’t be that guy that stuffs food waste into the recycling bin or drops your bottle just because you can’t find a trash can. Any bathroom will have a trash can, and most subway stations have some by the turnstiles. Ask around to people about where you should throw things away. Most people know even though they might not follow it.

19. Speaking of bathrooms, the locals throw their used paper in a bin next to the commode instead of flushing it on down.

You’ll probably say this is unsanitary, and you’d be right. Public restrooms have gotten a lot better in recent years, but it’s still a good idea to keep a package of paper in your bag (or pick some up at a convenience store or the vending machine outside most subway station bathrooms)

Photo of a bottle of soju, Seoul, South Korea
Photo of Soju, Seoul South Korea © grahamhills

20. The last tip to pass on: watch out for the soju.

The green glass bottle of 20% ABV alcohol costs a mere 1,500 won at convenience stores (about $1.40 USD) and about twice that at a bar or restaurant. Drink it out of shot glasses, and sip judiciously unless you want to get drunk fast. A number of people prefer mixing it with yogurt (I personally enjoy cutting it with cranberry juice) to avoid the taste of rubbing alcohol.

Click Here to Leave a Comment Below 26 comments
Carmen Litwin - January 4, 2016

I would love to travel to South Korea and get to know their culture. I think I would get to love it . I also want to learn their language

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    Saki - April 15, 2016

    A tip in learing Korean is to keep at it and learn their Alphabet

    Reply
    David - November 14, 2016

    Their culture is nothing but shame. It’s OK to come here for a couple of weeks and travel. But living here is challenging. Korean will never be your friends unless you look like a model or an actor. A shitty country with shitty arrogant people.

    Reply
    Randall - February 27, 2017

    Korea is a pretty fun country, but there is a serious warping of manners. Korean people will come off to westerners as extremely rude. Not holding doors open in the slightest (when you look behind you to give someone that extra door nudge for them to grab), instead they let it slam right in your face, everyone chews with their mouth wide open, cutting in line is pretty prevalent, however, if you sit with your legs crossed (male style) you get stared at because it’s “rude” here. People will also bump into constantly, no one really cares. But, the food is amazing (Korean BBQ!). I’d say visit for the food and experience the Gangnam area which gets lit up like the sun at night! But don’t expect anyone to treat you with the least amount of respect. Go to Japan instead!

    Reply
      None - April 18, 2017

      Maybe you should have learned their culture and not expect what you do from whatever country you’re from

      Reply
Leah - January 6, 2016

Thats exactly what I want to do. Hopefully someday!

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Kalyani Arjunwadi - February 17, 2016

I want to travel as well as do my PG in South Korea while learning their language culture everything…..I hope that day comes soon……^^

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harriette - February 24, 2016

i can’t wait to get to South Korea.

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john - March 10, 2016

korea is awesome

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Bullman - April 12, 2016

If you happen to have any complaint, please post them on:

http://www.bullman.co.kr

Thank you!!

Reply
Glory - April 18, 2016

I have always loved Korea. would like to be there someday

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Rachel Yehet - April 22, 2016

Would I have to learn fluent Korean before I travel to Seoul?

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    anonasshole - February 14, 2017

    would i have to know how to walk before I run a marathon?

    Reply
jenny - June 5, 2016

i cant wait to be in south korea ..i no it will not pass this year.so pleas friends if there is anyone based in seoul korea i really need there information is really needed..

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bernice - June 18, 2016

I love Korean right from my childhood…….I learn Korean bcos of a particular actor ever since I watch is first movie I can’t just get my mind off him I know it will be stupid to say that I fasted bcos of him I know he can never be with me but I love nd I will love him till the rest of my life

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Edwin - August 28, 2016

I would like to ask the free things/ attraction to visit. tia

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p.s bedi - October 12, 2016

I love Koeran right from my childhood.IF GOD GIVEN a chance to new birth I would like become korean.

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Meagan Browno - October 29, 2016

Amazing and informative blog about 20 things to learn about Korea! I am glad to find your blog because i did not know much about their culture. Thanks for all resources..

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kim nam safa saan - November 24, 2016

me too i lvd korean frm my childhood bcoz of their movies but i hope dat one day God will help me to arrive in korea

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    anonasshole - February 14, 2017

    god aint gonna make u magically appear there. work hard and youll get there smh

    Reply
Justine Eze - January 4, 2017

I love south Korea so much I will love to go there

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K. Petersen - February 6, 2017

Great list! 🙂 I will most likely be traveling to Seoul for a semester abroad so I am gracious for any tips 😀 Is there any good source to learn some Korean before departing this October?

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expatseek - February 19, 2017

Korea certainly is a very foreign culture for those from the west. That makes it both intriguing and at times difficult. It is always important to remember to bring patience and a sense of humour when you are interacting with a foreign culture.

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AAA - February 27, 2017

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Reply
hhh - May 11, 2017

I am a high school student in Korea.
When I read this article, I guess most of it seems right.
From the standpoint of high school student, korea is just f** crap world

Reply

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