Are you obsessed with Korean culture? In love with K-Pop and K-Dramas and want to know even more about South Korea?
That’s fantastic! Because if you’re learning Korean, then you know that South Korean culture is deeply tied to the language.
It’s near impossible to become fluent in the language without understanding the culture!
Even if you’re just now experiencing hallyu — the “Korean wave” of pop culture around the globe — don’t worry. This guide is the perfect place to start.
We’ll cover everything from life in Korea, to Korean customs and traditions, food, and relationships.
Let’s dive in!
A (Very) Brief Intro to Korean Culture
Many people are introduced to Korean culture through Korean art, pop culture, and entertainment.
Like Japan, there’s a lot of traditional Korean art, calligraphy, and ceramics. Plus, performing arts such as tea ceremonies, theatre, and dance. Many of these traditional arts morphed into the love of K-Pop dance moves, contemporary art, and even cartoons.
Plus, Korea has one of the highest literacy rates in the world. Hangul, the Korean alphabet was invented to standardize the writing systems and make learning to read and write Korean easy.
Because of that, Korean literature has boomed with popular novels all over the world, like Please Look After Mom and The Vegetarian.
But if you’ve enjoyed Korean entertainment, modern and traditional art forms, then you’ve probably noticed one of the biggest differences between Korea and the Western word:
Korea has been heavily influenced by Confucianism, which means much of the culture is based on social status, family ties, and the concept of “face.”
When it comes to social status, it affects what grammar and words you use when speaking, and even how you’re expected to act. As you read on, you’ll see this pointed out over and over again.
A lot comes down to age, especially. The oldest person in the room will set the tone.
When you’re meeting someone for the first time, you may not know their age, though. So it’s always best to be cautious by speaking and acting as if the other person is older until you know for sure.
So, make sure to use formal (or at least polite standard speech) when meeting someone for the first time! That means using the -imnida verb endings.
Speaking of age…
How to Work Out Your Korean Age
Korean age is different then what you may be used to. In Korea, the 40 weeks you spend in your mom’s womb is the start of your age.
Plus, Koreans add a year to their age every year on New Year’s Day.
Yes, that’s right — everyone gets a year older on that day.
So, chances are, by the time you’re born, you’re already 1!
Let me give an example. My birthday is in November. I would celebrate my birthday still in November, but my age changes on January 1st.
What this means is in Korea, you’ll be at least one year older. And as I mentioned, it’s important to understand this because age dictates social etiquette.
So, if you’re currently 30 years old, go ahead and add on one year for while you were a sprout in the womb. You’re now 31 in Korea.
Then, if you haven’t celebrated your birthday yet this year, add 1 more year because you would’ve already added a year on January 1st. You’re 32 now. (And you won’t add a year once your birthday comes around.)
That’s your Korean age!
Saving “Face” in Korea
기분 (gibun) means “face”, but it’s more like your outward mask or “saving face.”
Since social status and harmony are so crucial to Korean society, your “face” represents your part in society.
Someone who is “saving face” is working to keep a positive reputation and staying in-line with societal standards. And this is true at work, in your personal life, relationships, everything.
It’s also important to save face for your family as well. A son or daughter who has a poor reputation reflects poorly on the family.
In fact, many moms compare their daughters to their friend’s daughters, to “one-up” each other’s “face.”
Contextual Conversations and Using Honorifics
You’ll notice when you first start having conversations with Koreans that they won’t often tell you “no” or refuse a request.
That’s because saying “no” outright is too harsh and direct.
So instead, they may tell you in a roundabout way, or even say “maybe.”
That’s why it’s important to learn to read contextual clues in Korean.
Likewise, make sure you aren’t being too harsh and direct as well. Avoid refusing things outright, especially if it’s requested or given by someone older than you. For instance, don’t refuse another cup of soju (Korean alcohol) from your elder at the table.
If you don’t want another cup, don’t finish the cup you have. Then it won’t be refilled.
Another way to show respect is to add honorific titles to people’s names. The most common one is -씨 (-ssi).
You simply add it to the person’s family name (or whatever name they’ve told you to call them). If your friend’s name is Yoon Se-ri (yes, I swiped that from the popular K-Drama Crash Landing On You), then you would say Yoon-ssi.
If you’re friends with someone, though, you can add -아 (a) or -야 (ya) to the end of their name. If their name ends in a consonant, like Yoon, it would be Yoon-a. But if it ends in a vowel, like Ri Jeong Hyeok, where Ri is his family name, then you use -ya: Ri-ya.
But also, don’t assume that a wife’s name will be the same as her husband’s.
If the husband goes by Kim-ssi, the wife most likely will not. In Korea, it’s not common for a woman to take her husband’s family name.
But the kids will have the father’s family name. And they may even have the first part of his first name in their first name, too.
For example, if the dad’s name is Lee Soo-Ho, then his kids’ names may be Lee Soo-Jin or Lee Soo-Hyun.
Be Mindful That Koreans May View Things Differently Than You’ve Been Taught
It’s best to stay away from touchy topics in Korea. But you may not even realize what some of them are if you’ve been taught differently.
For instance, growing up in the USA and having learned Japanese first, I was taught the sea between Korea and Japan is the “Sea of Japan.”
But Korean’s call it the East Sea and don’t recognize it as Japanese waters. If you called it the Sea of Japan, you may spark some tension.
After all, Koreans are proud of their country and have a lot of nationalist pride. And the history between Korea and Japan is quite tense, even still, with contested geography and history.
You’ll see this especially any time Korea plays Japan in sports — everyone will be fired up and cheering with pride to win the game against Japan!
Besides topics of Japan, be mindful of relations with North Korea as well. The Demilitarized Zone (the DMZ) is still a tense area on the 38th parallel line that separates the North and South. Not everyone views these topics the same way, and keeping harmony and unity is key.
So, just be mindful that your worldview may not be theirs.
There are lots of unique Korean customs that are quite different from Western countries. Here are some of the most important Korean customs to know:
- Take your shoes off at the door always. It’s unacceptable to track dirt into someone’s home. You’ll leave your shoes by the front door, in a space called 현관 (hyeongwan, “entranceway”).
- When greeting someone (or saying goodbye), it’s polite to bow, especially if the other person is older than you.
- Use two hands for handshakes, or rest one hand across your stomach. You can also bow slightly while you shake hands. This is more respectful.
- It’s not common to hold the door open for others in Korea. (Going back to Crash Landing on You, Captain Ri does this and goes viral for it because it was unusual.)
- Like other Asian countries, you won’t say “God bless you” when someone sneezes. You’ll mostly ignore it.
- You may be bumped into often while walking on the street. It’s very crowded, and people don’t think much of it in South Korea.
- If you’re offered something from someone who is older than you, take it with both hands to show respect and gratitude.
- Trash cans are hard to find! And Koreans are strict about how trash is sorted and disposed of.
- Bathrooms in Korea, even in Korean homes, are quite different. Showers are not in stalls, and toilets are often “squatting toilets” — or holes in the floor.
- Because the toilets are different and the plumbing not the same as in some Western countries, you may not find toilet paper in restrooms. If there is toilet paper, you’ll need to throw it way in a bin.
Besides the use of a lot of Confucian traditions and ideology, Korea has a rich history of traditions.
One you may be most familiar with is the hanbok, which is the traditional Korean attire similar to the Japanese kimono.
It’s worn for weddings, festivals, special events, and ceremonies, or even match-making meetings (which, yes, still happen).
Another Korean tradition is the doljanchi, or first birthday party.
When a child turns one, they’ll be dressed in hanbok and a traditional hat, and placed in front of objects that represent different paths in life.
It may be money to symbolize wealth, thread to symbolize a long life, a calligraphy brush or pen for intelligence, etc.
Whatever the child picks is thought to foretell their future.
Koreans have many holidays they celebrate, but there are two big ones: Chuseok, which is Korean Thanksgiving and Seollal, Korean Lunar New Year.
Korean Thanksgiving is celebrated in September (its date changes, but it’s always the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar). On this day, Koreans celebrate their ancestors and heritage, tidy family graves, and celebrate together with food.
Korean Lunar New Year is on the second new moon after the winter solstice, so it’s usually in January or February. Everyone dresses in hanbok, and like Chuseok, will celebrate their family’s heritage with an at-home ceremony and visit family. After that, they’ll eat traditional foods, play games, and children receive money as gifts.
Like Japan, Korea also celebrates Valentine’s Day and White Day. On Valentine’s Day (Feb. 14th), girls give boys they like chocolates (but also friends and co-workers, which are called “obligation chocolates”). And on White Day on March 14th, men return the favor with gifts.
There’s also Black Day on April 14th, which is a day dedicated to people who are single. And it’s mostly to mourn over their lack of love… by dressing all in black and eating black foods, like jjajang myeon, noodles covered in black bean paste.
Relationships Matter to Korean People
South Korean people put a lot of emphasis on relationships.
When you’re working in Korea, you’ll find that it’s expected that you go out drinking with your coworkers (at least on occasion!). Because South Korea has such a strict hierarchy, drinking allows for a more relaxed environment and friendship building.
And often, you’ll be introduced to new relationships through other people you know. When you’re at work, a coworker will be the one to introduce you to a new acquaintance — you won’t introduce yourself.
When you’re introduced, it’s common to exchange business cards. Business cards in Korea are an extension of that person and their title, so you have to be mindful and respectful with how you handle the cards.
Never stick the cards in your pocket or throw it in your bag. The best practice is to take the business card with both hands. Take a few seconds to read it over and comment on something on the card, like the person’s title or company.
Then, put the card on the table in front of you, or in a business card holder if you have one. If neither of those is an option, hold it carefully until you’re done.
Love and Life in Korea
Like in the office, the most common way to meet a potential romantic interest is through a friend or coworker’s introduction.
It’s not typical for someone to approach you out of nowhere like it can be in Western countries. Instead, it’s thought that it’s best if a person who knows you both and thinks you’d click introduces you.
Couples in Korea aren’t big always big fans of PDA and they don’t say “I love you” in Korean very often. Although, this is changing with the younger generations.
But that doesn’t mean you won’t notice couples — everywhere.
Young couples make it super obvious by wearing matching clothes, holding hands, and other shows of affection. And they tend to celebrate a lot more mini-milestones than other cultures might, like dating for a month, two months, 100 days, etc.
Another clear giveaway is the use of aegyo, or “cute talk”, the women use around their boyfriends. It can sound a bit whiny, flirtatious, or babyish with drawn-out syllables and slightly different word endings.
Korean Food and Table Manners
Korea has incredible food!
Of course, I’m sure you know kimchi is a staple dish. Made with fermented cabbage and red chili sauce, Koreans (South and North alike!) eat this with most meals.
And like other Asian countries, rice is also a side with most meals. But unlike other countries (especially Japan), they tend to eat their rice with a spoon and bowls are never lifted off the table.
It’s better to hunch over your bowl than to lift it to your mouth.
A Korean favorite is bibimbap, kind of like a buddha bowl. It combines all the major staples: rice, meat, veggies, spices, and sesame oil, and is usually topped with a fried egg.
Haemul pajeon is nicknamed “Korean pizza” because it looks like pizza, but the texture is more like a pancake. But don’t be fooled — it’s not your typical pizza or pancake.
Instead, it’s filled with seafood and veggies and is fried until it’s crispy.
Japchae is a sweet-potato noodle stir fry, mixed with tons of veggies and sometimes meat.
But of course, there’s also a lot of foods on the wilder side, like intestines, pigs feet, and yes… sometimes dog meat (although there’s been a lot of pushback on this more recently due to international influence).
Soju and Drinking Culture
Soju is the Korean alcoholic beverage of choice, and you’ll find it’s paired with most meals. It’s a bit like vodka or sake, and you’ll toast your drinks with a 건배! (geonbae)
It’s common to go out to norae bang, or karaoke rooms, with friends and have some drinks.
When you’re out drinking, never pour your own drink. In Korea, you pour for others, and they’ll pour for you.
Always make sure to pour with two hands, and as I mentioned earlier, it’s not polite to refuse a drink. If you don’t drink at all, it’s best to make an excuse and refuse in a roundabout way.
Korean Etiquette and Table Manners
When you’re out at restaurants, you’ll often be given hand wipes for you to cleanse your hands before and after you eat. So make sure to use them first!
Most Korean restaurants only offer large plates meant to be shared among a whole table. So expect that if you’re out to eat with friends, you’ll order what you want, but everyone will share.
When all the dishes arrive, it’s polite to wait for the oldest person at the table to start eating. And, in fact, you’ll pace your eating around them. It’s polite to eat and stop eating around when they do but just do your best.
When you go to serve yourself, make sure to use a clean spoon to scoop food from the communal plates onto your own smaller plate.