Arriving in South Korea: Language, etiquette, customs, soju
IF you’re still under the impression that the Japanese and Korean culture are basically the same, you can’t be more wrong.
For starters, in the Korean culture, respect for elders is paramount and politeness is very important. As such, the level of respect to be shown based on age, seniority, or societal ranking is stricter.
In Japan, it’s rude to ask someone for their age, especially upon first meeting. But in Korea, it’s one of the first questions that will be asked in other to determine hierarchical ranking. The ranking determines how you would address the person and speech (formal for elders/seniors and informal for juniors) from there onwards.
For example, younger men would address older men as hyung while younger women would address older men as oppa. Younger men would address older women as noona while younger women would address older women as unnie.
And those are just the basics.
Formal speech is not only for elders/seniors among friends, peers, at school, and at work, but also for the family. Most Koreans speak to their parents with proper honorifics and formal speech, especially with their father. It may sound cold and distant to someone who doesn’t know any better, but it’s a form of respect and a sign of maturity.
For tourists or foreigners, it’s best to use some formal speech or honorifics when speaking to Koreans, unless told otherwise. For example, instead of casually saying, “Annyeong!” (hello in Korean) to a Korean that you’ve just met, go with “Annyeonghaseyo!” instead.
And remember to bow slightly for good measure.
Fun fact: When speaking to someone senior, avoid direct eye contact as it’s considered impolite and it gives the other party the impression that you’re challenging them.
BB cream it up
South Koreans put a lot of effort into their appearance. After all, the country is famed for its skincare, cosmetics, and plastic surgery.
Vanity and beauty standards aside, South Korean women don’t leave the house without at least some BB cream (blemish balm) and lip tint (lip stain). South Korean men, on the other hand, would always ensure that they’re dressed well. A good appearance is an image of success and tells people that they can handle themselves well while the opposite is a sign of laziness and can translate badly in business or work performance.
Fun fact: Men’s cosmetics has been growing in popularity in South Korea. According to global market research firm Euromonitor International, in 2012, South Korean men reportedly spent US$565 million on skincare, accounting for nearly 21 percent of global sales. South Korea has the biggest men’s cosmetics market to date.
Unlike in some parts of Asia, such as Malaysia or Singapore, Koreans stand on the right-hand side of escalators to let people pass them on the left-hand side. This is especially important to ensure that you’re not entirely oblivious while getting on and off subway station escalators as other commuters could be in a rush. You don’t want to be that person who ignorantly stands on the left and holds up about 20 other people behind you.
Ignore this simple etiquette and you could be inviting a couple of loud and disapproving “Aish!”s or “Tsk tsk!”s and killer dagger stares.
Fun fact: Seoul’s subway system has been described as the world’s longest, beating the UK’s London Underground (otherwise known as the Tube) and New York City’s subway, and rated one of the world’s best by CNN and Jalopnik. It carries almost seven million passengers per day on nine lines.
Sidewalk space out
Similar to the aforementioned standing right and walking left rule of thumb, one also shouldn’t be idly spacing out while out and about. Much of South Korea’s cities, specially metropolis Seoul, draw large crowds due to people commuting via public transportation on the daily.
And most are constantly in a rush to keep up with the public transportation schedules. As such, don’t be too surprised about being pushed, elbowed or jostled. And don’t expect an “Excuse me” or an apology either.
Best if you don’t space out on the sidewalk altogether.
Fun fact: Stay alive, alert, awake and steer clear of the ahjumma (elderly woman or aunty). They’re tougher than they appear to be.
Recycle, you must
South Korea is very strict with its recycling policies and has a proper garbage system in place. Trash has to be separated according to very specific types.
Things like paper, glass, steel, fabrics, and plastics are recycled, and trash must always be separated into types and compressed or flattened before disposal.
Recyclables must then be put into specific bins, and this applies nationwide be it at home, at the office, on the streets, or in a subway station. Do the opposite and risk having a local ahjumma give you an earful about what you’re doing wrong.
Fun fact: In South Korea, food trash will be recycled as animal feed or compost. As such, things like shells (seafood, nuts, eggs), bones, fish organs, tea leaves, and hard seeds shouldn’t go into the same bag.
Surviving the bus
Getting on the bus is another popular form of transportation in South Korea, particularly at the lesser known provinces such as Jeju and Gangwon as they’re not as connected (via the subway) as Seoul. For the most part, bus drivers are excellent at maneuvering and they seldom get into accidents.
But they’re also known for their Formula 1 capabilities.
The trick to surviving a bus ride, however, is to hang on tightly. As fast as bus drivers can Michael Schumacher-it up, they can also brake just as fast. Hold on to the bar or the handle to avoid falling over an unassuming, seated passenger.
Also, unless if you’re old, disabled, injured, young enough to need adult supervision, or pregnant, do not sit in the end seats towards the front.
Fun fact: Like all these other countries in Asia, South Korea has “one card to rule them all”. Tourists can buy the T-money card to make their travels convenient as the card can be used for subways, taxis, and buses.
As with other parts of Asia, when visiting someone’s home in Korea, be sure to take off your shoes at the door before you step into the house without them having to ask.
Koreans consider it a great disrespect if the custom is not followed. Other than for purely hygienic reasons (who knows what you’ve stepped on while you’re outside?), Koreans often sit and sleep on their floor while eating, drinking, sleeping, and resting. Most Korean homes have heated floors which are really comfortable to walk on during the colder days and nights, and a shame to be underappreciated by shoe-wearing feet.
Some restaurants, especially the more traditional ones, will also require you to take your shoes off.
Fun fact: Embarrassed about exposing your bare feet (just in case you’re not a socks person)? Fret not. Most Koreans will offer you house slippers called sil nae hwa (literally translates as “room indoor shoes”) that you can wear.
The soju style
No holiday or stay in South Korea is complete without sampling the country’s many brands of soju (Korean rice wine) as it is the national alcoholic beverage. But when drinking soju, there’s also a set of etiquettes to follow and rules to abide by.
When filling the cup of an elder or senior, the one pouring the drink must use two hands to support the bottle. When a junior’s cup is being filled by an elder or senior, they must lift the cup up with both hands and slightly bow their head. And when taking a sip in the presence of elders or seniors, the junior must face away from them so as to not appear disrespectful.
Fun fact: Korean distiller Jinro is the largest manufacturer of soju accounting for half of all white spirits sold in South Korea. Unsurprisingly, soju accounts for 97 percent of the category. Global sales in 2013 were 750 million bottles. The second-largest spirits brand, Smirnoff, sold less than half that number.
*This article was written in collaboration with Korea Tourism Organization.