Korea is often said to be the world’s most Confucian nation, such values having been instilled for over a thousand years across several dynasties, elements of Confucianism still linger on today.
Perhaps most evident to foreigners will be what amounts to a national obsession with age – you’re likely to be asked how old you are soon after your first meeting with any Korean, and any similarity of birth years is likely to be greeted with a genuine satisfaction (note that Koreans count years differently from Westerners – children are one when they’re born, and gain another year at the New Year, meaning that those born on December 31 are technically two years old the next day).
Refrain from touching another person unless that person is a relative or close personal friend. The only exception to this rule is that Koreans will touch children to show their warm affection. This is a compliment.
Koreans shake hands like Westerners, but the traditional Korean greeting is to bow from the waist. Koreans believe that direct eye contact during conversations shows boldness, and out of politeness they concentrate on the conversation, usually avoiding eye contact.
When passing a gift, or any object to someone, use both hands. The right hand is used to pass the object, while the left hand is used in support. If the person receiving the gift is older, the person offering the gift bows the head slightly as a sign of respect. Passing with one hand is acceptable if the person receiving the gift is younger or lower in stature.
Remove your shoes when entering a Korean home or temple. When putting shoes back on at a temple, never sit on the steps with your back to the area of worship.
On subways and buses, there are separate sections with seats for elders. It is common practice to give seats to the elderly in Korea.
If you are dining with someone who is older than you, you should wait for them to sit and to start eating, and you should remain at the table until they have finished eating. At the end of the meal, your chopsticks and spoon should be returned to their original position.
Stews, soups, and meat dishes are often served in a large communal dish rather than individual servings.
Diners can eat directly from the main dish, or serve themselves using individual plates provided. It is rare to share the bill or ‘go dutch’. Generally, the older member of the group will pay the bill.
Drinking alcohol can be an important part of social life in Korea. You should never serve yourself, but someone else should fill your glass. If your fellow diner’s glass is empty, you should refill it, especially if you are drinking with someone older than you.
Younger diners might try to repay the debt by paying for coffee afterward.