Many still think of South Korea as underdeveloped, or associate it with North Korea, when really neither could be further from the truth. South Korea is an incredibly modern country with a strong American influence on its culture. Indeed, it is often the conflict between traditional custom and American influence that can make settling into the culture confusing.
Here are a few social customs in South Korea you should keep in mind when you visit.
Money in South Korea
The currency in South Korea is the South Korean won (KRW). This is used throughout the country. You might find some small shops or market vendors will accept US dollars, but it’s uncommon.
Tipping culture is very similar to the USA in terms of when and how much is appropriate. Waiters, porters, taxi drivers etc. will all gladly welcome a tip, and most will expect it.
However, Koreans consider it polite to offer the tip discreetly, such as folding a bill into a waiter’s hand, rather than leaving it openly on the table. If you’re tipping a larger amount – perhaps to a tour guide – you can even do so in a sealed envelope.
Social Etiquette in South Korea
Same sex relationships
There are no laws against homosexuality in South Korea, but same sex relationships are not recognised by the government. This means you’ll see gay bars and clubs in major cities, yet same sex couples displaying romantic affection on the street will be frowned upon.
What can be further confusing for visitors is that it’s common for same sex friends to display physical affection you would normally associate with romance, such as holding hands, resting a head in their lap, etc.
Greetings and conversation
Koreans usually bow to each other when they meet as a sign of respect, and it can be accompanied by a handshake. They’re unlikely to think less of you for not doing it, but it can certainly be a good way to make friends.
Older Koreans might grill you with questions – your age, your job, your parents’ job etc. – when they first meet you. If this makes you uncomfortable, try to change the subject as quickly as possible!
Cosmetic surgery in South Korea is quite commonplace. You’ll see adverts everywhere offering plastic surgery, and people will talk quite openly about the procedures they’ve had done.
You may even find that some talk quite openly with you about how surgery could correct your perceived physical flaws. Try not to be offended, they’re not being intentionally insulting!
South Korea places a lot of importance on respecting elders. There are senior-only seats on subway trains, and during meals the oldest is always served and allowed to eat first.
If you ever find yourself offering something to an older Korean person, do so with two hands as a sign of respect. If the item is small, you can use your free arm to support the other.
The Korean War and other conflicts
It’s safest to avoid talking about the Japanese occupation, the Korean War, or US foreign policy with your hosts. These are delicate subjects, and you could easily cause offense accidentally. It’s probably best to avoid talking politics all together!
You may have the opportunity to visit the demilitarised zone on the border with North Korea (an amazing experience), but try to avoid talking about North Korea. It is a sensitive subject, as many South Koreans lost family when the country was divided. Similarly, complimenting North Korea in any way could cause offense.
Generally speaking, South Koreans are very proud of their country. If you want to get in your hosts’ good books, compliment South Korea, or at least avoid criticising it!