South Korea is a place where people work hard. This is a nation that has grown from a state of absolute poverty at the end of the Korean War to a First World country with one of Asia’s highest per capita incomes. Such a feat in less than 60 years is not possible with a ‘nine-to-five’ attitude toward work.
Confucian ethics continue to dictate a great respect for age, parents, teachers, and employers. Although Western cultural influence is gradually entering Korea’s business world, major differences still exist between the typical Korean company and Western companies. Many Korean companies still apply the seniority principle, or hierarchy according to age, but brainstorming, regular meetings, and other team-building activities have entered the mainstream of organizational culture in Korea.
Koreans also value lifelong friendships. Korean history is speckled with invasions and weary war years, so locals have learned the hard way the value of a loyal friend. The term jeong is a difficult-to-translate concept that means affection, compassion, sympathy, community, and attachment. The closest English equivalent word may be ‘bonding.’ Jeong is so important in Korea that once this type of connection is developed, it is rarely renounced. Instead, it is cherished and given opportunities to flourish.
That said, it also is worth noting that Koreans are more likely than other Asian cultures to accept foreign acquaintances. They enjoy helping expatriates understand and experience their traditions. In exchange, they expect foreigners to be polite, humble and respectful of Korean ways. Here are some tips for living life like a local in South Korea:
- Dining establishments in Korea range from modern fusion restaurants to traditional Korean restaurants. It is typical for restaurants that serve traditional Korean cuisine to have traditional Korean décor, such as low tables that require diners to sit on the floor; however, it is becoming commonplace to find restaurants catering to foreign visitors, with Western-style tables and chairs.
- When dining in a traditional restaurant, remove your shoes before entering, then sit on cushions on the floor. On such occasions, men should be sure to wear nice socks, and women should avoid short skirts. Do not step on the pillows when preparing to sit down. Men may cross their legs when sitting on the floor, but women should sit with their legs together and to the side.
- Drinking is taken very seriously in Korea and is often part of a meal. Male (and often female) guests are expected to keep up with their hosts. Generally, female guests may politely decline, and their host will not be offended. If a man has legitimate religious or health reasons to decline, this may be done without offending the host. Even if you are not planning to drink, it is polite to receive the drink and toast together. If it is a Korean traditional alcoholic beverage being consumed, your Korean counterparts will drink their first glass, which is almost always a toast, in one go. You should follow this protocol. If you wish to enjoy the evening with a moderate amount of alcohol, you should drink subsequent glasses slowly or keep the glass half full. As with food, an empty glass is an invitation for more. An extremely important point to remember is never to pour a drink for yourself, or require others to pour drinks for themselves. It is polite to pour drinks for others when their glasses are empty. When offered a drink, hold the glass with both hands, then take the bottle from the other person and pour it for them, again with two hands. The most common Korean toast is geon-bae.
- Going ‘Dutch’ is not the norm in Korea. When two or more people go out, one person pays for the meal and the others will pay the respective next rounds. Usually, the oldest person or the supervisor pays the first bill, and the others are expected to fight and argue for it. But nowadays, it is becoming common to see young people taking care of their own bills.
- When giving a gift, present it with both hands. It is good manners to initially refuse a gift, and persistence is important on the part of the giver. Gifts should be wrapped in bright colors (yellow and red or green stripes are a traditional Korean wrapping paper design) and might include candy, cakes, flowers or fruit. Very expensive or elaborate gifts should be avoided, as the recipient will feel the need to reciprocate.
- Gifts should be of good quality and made in your home country or region. Good gifts are items that reflect a specific regional aspect, such as crafts, imported food or liquor.
- Remove your shoes before entering a Korean home.
- Objects are usually passed and received with both hands.
- Do not begin eating until the oldest person has picked up his or her chopsticks or spoon. Most Koreans do not eat with a knife or fork.
- Slurping and belching are acceptable while dining, and is sometimes considered a sign of appreciation of the cooking.
- Koreans are fond of karaoke, and friends often visit norae bang (singing rooms); it is best to join in, even if the attempt is not perfect.
- There may be much pushing and shoving by strangers, particularly in Seoul. The logic is that since people do not know one another, they have no obligations. It is best to take this in stride.
- To beckon a server in a restaurant, say Yogiyo (‘over here’).
- To beckon someone, do so with the palm facing down and fluttering the hand. Holding your palm face up is considered impolite.
- Do not smoke directly in front of a person of higher status. The same applies to drinking. Do not drink directly facing a person of higher status; rather the drinker should turn his or her head to one side and cover the mouth so the other does not literally see the drinking.
- Tipping is not a part of the culture in Korea.
- Seoul is known as the most ‘wired’ city on the planet, with 80 percent of the population owning a smartphone. This means that a great deal of socializing and conversation occurs through mobile devices, using messenger applications like Kakaotalk, a free messenger application. Many work-related conversations occur via Kakaotalk, as well. Using a smartphone is mandatory if you want to be part of a group among co-workers or friends, or to network with others.