There are significant differences between acceptable behavior and etiquette in the United States versus that in South Korea, and navigating these early on is a huge help. I think generally you’ll be given some leeway if you make an unfortunate social faux pas, but it’s always best to understand, respect, and adopt the customs of the country you’re calling home for a few months. I was always very sensitive about this, especially in an environment where I felt the U.S. was very much a laughingstock on the world stage. I wanted to be a representative of the best parts of my home country, not the…let’s say, Trumpy parts.
- Subway Etiquette
Subways are incredibly easy to figure out in Seoul, but there’s some stuff you should know ahead of time. In most cars, there are different colored seats in the back designated for the elderly, and it is definitely not okay to sit here. There are also pink seats for pregnant women, so avoid sitting there as well. No worries, though, it will be easy to see which seats have special designation since they are almost always color-coded!
In general, be relatively quiet and respectful on subways. The loud groups of foreigners are pretty irritating for people who just want to ride in peace.
When you’re not using chopsticks, never stick them in your food or on your bowl. This is tied with how people present food at funerals, so you want to avoid making other people think of death during your meal. I actually had no idea this was a rule when I first got to Seoul, but luckily my friend ripped my chopsticks out of a bowl of noodles and told me that was a big no. Instead, you usually will get a small napkin and rest your chopsticks on that.
I was terrible at chopstick dexterity for a couple of weeks, which is embarrassing, especially when it would take me ten years to finish a bowl of noodles – they’re so slippery. If you’re like me and are behind on chopstick skills because you grew up in a town with no cultural diversity, no worries, just watch some YouTube videos and practice in shame until you’ve got it.
- Blowing Your Nose
Yeah, really try not to do this in public. It does not jive with local sensibilities. It’s a pretty big departure from the U.S., where having a cold will generally not make you a social pariah, but if you do need to blow your nose then bathrooms are really easy to find around Seoul! This was really only something that impacted me when I came down with a nasty cold right before my departure, but if you absolutely can’t breathe, just be as polite as you can about clearing those sinuses.
Women in particular are more conservative in dress than in the U.S. – with tops, at least, because the tiniest of miniskirts are certainly in trend. Tank tops and low cut shirts are things to avoid if you want to avoid drawing undue attention to yourself, which can be a bit challenging depending on your size and body shape (many Korean clothes are pretty small, but there are lots of global commercial stores like H&M). For men and women alike, casual dress is, well, less casual, so the typical style is a bit dressier than you may be used to.
My friends and I went to a waterpark owned by Everland during our last week, and swimsuits are a major difference – bikinis are not a thing. Wetsuit tops are pretty universal, and even in my conservative-for-America tankini, I felt a bit out of place.
You never fill your own glass when you’re out for a drink or dinner with Koreans. Generally, no glass will ever be empty for long, so if you don’t want to drink much, then leave some liquid in your cup lest your companions see an empty cup and fill it for you. Drinking culture can get really hardcore, so this tip is very helpful if you want to avoid drinking too much on any given night. There are also some etiquette rules based on age – the youngest might cater to the oldest and such – but since most of my time was spent with Korean HUG members, they would never expect the exchange students to really abide by these (though they’re happy to explain) – it can get pretty confusing!
- Body Language
Americans can be a touchy-feely people (by our standards, I’m touch-adverse, but I would often freak my French friends out by going in for goodbye hugs, which is simply not done over there). Touch between people who don’t know each other well is pretty uncalled for in Korea, however, so avoid being that gregarious with people you wouldn’t consider friends. You will notice, though, that the many, many couples and close friends walking around Seoul will have linked arms or held hands.
When you’re being handed something, like when a cashier would return my credit card, you will probably notice that the other person will hold their left hand under their right forearm. This is a sign of respect, so definitely keep that one in mind!
Lastly, greeting people with a slight bow is standard good manners, and this is pretty easy to subconsciously mimic even if you’re not actively aware of this piece of etiquette. I found myself doing the classic head bow and “감사합니다 (gamsahamnida),” or “thank you,” all the time without even thinking.
I’m sure I am forgetting one or two things that I adapted to over the past four months, but this should give a decent idea of what it takes to be a polite, upstanding member of Korean society rather than an obnoxious foreigner. We already stand out a bit, so doing our best to show respect for customs is really important and highly appreciated!
Especially if you’re a U.S. citizen. Do your part. Don’t dishonor us.