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Korean Customs

Below is a very brief introduction to Korean culture and customs, please take the opportunity during your stay in Korea to learn even more about your Korean home and Korean neighbors.

Korean Customs

Korean Customs and Etiquette Handbook

Korean Names

Koreans place the family name first and their given personal name second. Family names are traditional clan names and each has a village from which it comes. Thus, there is a difference between a Kim who comes from Kyong-ju and a Kim who comes from Kimhae.

The five most common Korean names are Kim, Pa(r)k, Lee, Choi (Choe) and Oh. Because of the inconsistencies of translating names from Hangul to Roman characters the spellings of these names may vary.

Koreans will generally avoid calling a person by their name when possible. Instead they will call them by their title, position, trade, profession, scholastic rank or some other honorific form such as “teacher”.

Etiquette and Dining

Koreans shake hands and bow at the same time. The depth of the bow depends on the relative superiority of the two people.

When passing a gift, money or other object to another, use both hands and bow. The right hand is used to pass the object while the left hand is used to support the right hand.

Koreans believe that direct eye contact during conversation shows boldness and out of politeness they concentrate on the conversation usually avoiding eye contact.

You will see young men walking in the street with their arms around each other’s shoulders and women walking hand in hand. This shows nothing more than simple intimacy and friendship. Touching close friends while talking to them is perfectly acceptable in Korea. Koreans will touch children to show their warm affection for them. This is a compliment to let the child know how cute he or she is. Bumping into people while passing is understood unless you shove or otherwise act offensively.

If you attend a wedding it is customary to bring a white envelope containing a sum of money. Handing cash to someone is considered offensive unless you are paying for merchandise.

Dinner in a traditional Korean home or restaurant is quite different than American-style dining. Guests will sit on the floor around a low table. Many different foods are served each cut into bit-size pieces. Each person will have their own bowl of rice, but will otherwise help themselves to other foods directly from the serving dishes.

During your meal rest your chopsticks and spoon on top of a dish. When you are finished eating you may lay them on the table. Never stick chopsticks of spoons in a bowl of rice; this is associated with prayers for the dead. Also never refill a partially, but not completely empty glass, for the same reason. Don’t worry about reaching in front of others or asking for a dish to be passed.

The hostess may put your gift aside without opening it in order to possibly not embarrass you by the smallness of the gift. She will open it if you politely ask her to.

At a restaurant “going Dutch” is not customary. Koreans just take turns paying.


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