5 Cultural Things To Know About Your First Trip to Korea

When you ask expats about their time living in Korea, you’ll most likely have the pleasure of hearing them rave on and on about how wonderful life can be in this unique country. Korea is not only one of the friendliest places on the planet, but has also been rated as one of the top ten safest countries in the world. This, coupled with amazing food, low cost of living, and a dynamic culture may mean that Korea is the perfect place for you.

Of course, when it comes down to it, Korea also features a foreign culture which you may find intimidating or difficult to understand. So before you embark on your fantastic journey to this Asian nation, be sure to read the 5 following culture tips for life in The Land of the Morning Calm!


1. No shoes, no problems!

For a lot of foreigners from the West in particular, the first thing they tend to notice about Korean culture is that you generally aren’t supposed to wear your shoes inside. To Koreans, a clean floor is of utmost importance and they spend time and effort making sure it stays pristine –which obviously makes wearing your shoes inside someone’s house a bit unhygienic and a big no-no. Your average Korean family will spend a lot of time on the floor, either sleeping, eating, or simply sitting there, so don’t offend by forgetting to remove your shoes!

2. Mini skirts and suits, oh my!

Women’s fashion in Korea takes a huge departure from Western customs in that it’s perfectly acceptable to show off your legs. Wearing short shorts, mini-skirts, and so on is normal, however, showing your shoulders or back is not. So when in Korea, ladies, keep in mind that your shoulders should be covered, although your legs need not be. Men, on the other hand, don’t have to worry as much about casual wear outside of work, but should be careful when approaching on-the-job attire. Korean men tend to wear suits for every type of job, so don’t be surprised if you run into an elementary school teacher decked out in a suit while his female counterpart is wearing a short skirt.

3. Think before you eat!

There are a couple main rules for approaching proper dinner etiquette in Korea. Perhaps one of the most important is when you can start eating. When sitting down to dinner in Korea, no matter how hungry you are, you should not pick up your chopsticks before the oldest person at the table picks up theirs. Once you’ve passed that hurdle, don’t assume you’re in the clear yet. When taking a break or finishing eating, be sure to never stick your chopsticks upright in your bowl. Why? Well, in Asian culture people usually stick incense upright when they burn it at funerals and upright chopsticks tends to remind them of death. You don’t want your host thinking macabre thoughts while they’re trying to stomach their food, do you?


4. Take a shot, make a friend!

When you are out with colleagues or new acquaintances, there may come a point where someone offers you a shot of Soju or Korean beer. Don’t worry, it’s not a ploy to get you drunk, but rather a sign of friendship. Which means that turning it down can be deeply offensive. If you don’t drink alcohol, just replace the beverage with some other non-alcoholic drink. It’s the ritual that matters, and not what you’re drinking. And on a side note, if the person you’re taking the shot with is older than you or of a higher rank, be sure to turn your head away while taking the shot as a sign of respect.

5. An empty seat is not an open seat!

Many an amused foreigner has related stories about how feisty elderly Koreans can be, and nothing proves this more than their willingness to staunchly defend seats for the elderly and pregnant on buses and subways. When you board public transportation, avoid these seats like the plague. It doesn’t matter if they’re all empty and the rest of the bus is full, if you sit there you’ll risk getting put in your place by the irate elderly gentleman who gets on at the next stop. Standing seems preferable to public humiliation, doesn’t it?


Without a doubt, Korea’s culture and way of life will make every single day of your journey there a fascinating one. But given that over 75 million people around the world speak Korean and only roughly 2 percent of people in Korea speak English, learning the language should definitely be your next course of action before you begin your trip abroad. Brush up on your Korean with a free online placement test and sign up for some top-tier language lessons to get your Korean to the level it needs to be. Then you’ll truly be ready to enjoy all the wonderful aspects of this amazing country!