Just like every other country in the world, Korea has many different people with many different backgrounds and cultures. This article is not to take away from those differences nor is it to paint with a broad stroke.
Going to a new country can be intimidating, especially when you consider how many cultural differences there are between places. If you are worried about traveling to Korea for this reason, then don’t worry; We got you covered.
4 Interesting Korean Cultural Differences
Honestly, when it comes to restaurants in Korea, a completely separate post is necessary, so I will just touch on the basics starting from when you enter the restaurant. Korean restaurants pretty much require the patrons to be independent. When walking in, chances are you will have to seat yourself, but to be safe, if someone is standing in the front, just indicate to the person how many people you will be dining with (I usually do this by holding up fingers and saying 명(myung). In Korea, your server does not come to you unless requested. Most of the time your table will have a button on it that calls a server to your table when you are ready to order, and if it doesn’t, just say 여기요~ (yeo-gi-yooo) with a raised hand as politely as possible. Then comes the fun part of eating. Korean restaurants have a culture of sharing that may be a bit shocking at first. It is not rare that a foreigner comes to Korea, goes to a restaurant, orders a bowl of soup, and finds themselves surprised over the fact that you often share the pot with everyone you’re with, dipping your spoon and chopsticks in the same bowl as your friends.
2. Street Rules (or lack thereof)
If you walk around Korean streets like at home, chances are you are probably going to get hit by an aggressive driving ajumma or a delivery driver on a time crunch. In Korea, pedestrians do not have the right of way like they do in most Western countries, and drivers can get very aggressive. Buses are probably guilty of being the most likely to hit you, as they often do not stop for anything. Remember to to only cross the street at crosswalks and actually triple check before crossing, motorbikes run red lights ALL the time. I can’t even begin to think about the amount of times that I almost had a near death experience from not paying attention.
3. Confucian Culture is super prevalent and incredibly important
Confucian culture in Korea is, without a doubt, the most distinguishing cultural aspect of Korea. It is so ingrained in the culture, even, that it is in the language. Korean language requires honorifics when spoken, which constantly keeps people aware of hierarchy whether it be due to age, class or status.When you greet someone, you bow (even the level of bowing is dependent on hierarchy!), and when you are drinking, there’s certain unwritten guidelines that are generally followed and dependent on status. Younger Koreans tend to not necessarily be as strict when it comes to this very respectful culture, but just to be safe you should always assume they do. Also, as a final note, if you are on a subway or a bus and seats are marked for the disabled and elderly, do. not. sit. there.
4. When it comes to English speakers/speaking, Koreans tend to be very friendly and super shy, shy, shy
See the disclaimer at the beginning of this post.
Koreans invest a lot of time and effort into learning English. Most Koreans study English their whole lives, but because Korea is one of the most homogeneous countries in the world , they don’t always get to put their English skills to practical use. So they tend to be shy when they have the opportunity to have a conversation with a native English speaker. Though Foreigners tend to feel very welcomed in Korea, as the Korean people generally embrace different cultures. Sad stories of visiting countries around the world, not speaking the language, and being ostracized and made fun of are common themes to travelers. However those who travel to South Korea have no such worries and as Koreans openly embrace these languages, except for maybe when you ask for directions. Though, this does not mean you shouldn’t put in an effort to learning Korean.