Common Mistakes When Visiting Korea
As a tourist, it’s easy to fall victim to these common mistakes when visiting Korea for the first time. Well, had a read of this list to help prepare you for a bit of a culture shock when travelling to South Korea!
Update 4/3/22: With South Korea reopening without quarantine for vaccinated travelers I figured we should repost this.
DON’T Sit There! Elderly seats on Subways
In Korea, like in Japan, there are designated seats on the subway for elderly, sick, or pregnant people. You might think it’s a good idea to sit in one if no one is around you think needs your help. You’d be wrong. Don’t sit there when no one is around, and don’t even sit there when the train is 100% full.
They’re usually clearly marked in Korean and English, but if there is no English, it’s also pretty simple to see and understand the signage.
DON’T Stick Your Chopsticks in Rice
Not polite in most Asian countries, it is a common Korean mistake. Sticking your chopsticks in rice may seem like a great place to rest them. But resist. Place them on the side of the plate, instead. Sticking them in rice, or indeed in any food, has connotations with death.
DON’T Write a Name in Red Ink
It’s very bad luck in Korea to write someone’s name in red ink, due to the superstitions that surround this. This dates back to previously when the names of deceased people were written in red ink on funeral banners and in family registers.
DON’T Refuse Soju
If you don’t drink alcohol, and stick by that for your entire time, then you could get away with it. But if you’re at a table drinking beer and someone pours you some soju; don’t refuse it. Even if you think it tastes like petrol.
DON’T Forget to Pour Drinks Properly
If you’re in a group and want to show some respect to the people you’re drinking with (maybe they’re colleagues or people older than you), then it would be polite to pour them a drink. Make sure to do this right, though! Hold the bottom of the bottle with one hand and pour with the other, pouring slowly.
Make sure to pour everyone else’s before your own (in fact, you shouldn’t pour your own at all!) And if you’re very careful, make sure to pour the eldest one’s first.
DON’T Face an Elder while Doing a Shot
Now all the drinks are poured, you need to be careful when taking the shot. Don’t look into the eye of the person who poured you the shot or an elder. Look to one side and hold your elbow and shoot your drink, then turn back and replace your glass on the table again.
Well, it shows respect.
DON’T Blow Your Nose in Public
While constantly sniffing might be considered rude in your culture, in Korea, and also Japan, sniffing constantly is MUCH better than blowing your nose in public, which is considered very rude. Excuse yourself to the bathroom, instead – or hold it in until you can.
DON’T Receive with One Hand
Like in Japan, it is impolite for you to take a gift or business card with one hand. Especially with business cards, you should use both hands and take it respectfully.
DON’T Talking Loudly on Public Transport
Or… Don’t talk loudly in general. You should be aware of your surroundings and respect those close. This also means no playing games, playing loud music, or making a call on the phone.
This is also a cultural faux-pas in Japan.
DON’T Wear Shoes In Someone’s House
When entering some buildings and ALL houses, you should remove your shoes before stepping onto the raised threshold and into the house. It’s very impolite to keep your shoes on inside.
DON’T Forget Socks
As mentioned before, you will often be required to take your shoes off or wear slippers. You don’t want to have to put your stinky bare feet into someone’s clean slippers, so best to always wear socks, or carry some with you.
With that in mind, it’s also a good to make sure you’re always wearing good socks, or no socks with holes in etc.
DON’T Rush to Call Someone their First Name
In Korea, it is polite to address someone by their last name. In fact, only closer friends call people by their first names. Someone’s second name actually comes first, so, for example, ‘Kim Jong Un’ – a name everyone knows – Kim is the second name, or family name (that’s why his father and grandfather are also called Kim). Jong Un is his given name, or first name.
You should also not presume everyone is called Kim. Sure, it’s a common surname. But common surnames are not limited to Korea only. Similar to ‘Smith’ or ‘Jones’ in the UK.
Instead, call someone you meet first with Mr. Or Mrs., and then their family name – e.g. Mr. Kim.
DON’T Rush To Eat
In Korea, it’s polite to wait for the eldest before eating. This is particularly true if you’re dining at someone’s house or with someone’s family.
DON’T Assume People Speak English
While learning English is becoming more relevant and important, especially with younger populations, this certainly doesn’t mean everyone in Korea speaks English. In fact, you’d probably be surprised with how few do. It’s best to learn some key phrases before you go, and make sure you have access to a translator on your phone or a dictionary.
Common Mistakes When Visiting Korea: A Final Note…
Of course, you are being introduced to so many new things in a culture. You may make some of these common mistakes when visiting Korea. Or even all of them! The main thing is that you try and make an effort to respect the rules of the society and culture.
Most importantly… Have fun!