Etiquette 101: South Korea

14 June 2016

All of us have experienced differences in etiquette, both good and bad, when travelling abroad or even in our own hometown. I can't be the only one that questions why people think it's acceptable to cut your nails on the MTR. Whether it's from a different background and upbringing or just general expectations of social norms and respect, this post aims to give you a helpful insight into what to expect and what to avoid when it comes to etiquette in South Korea.

General Behaviour

Korea has been known as one of the world's most Confucian nation, and still maintains this view today. This is the value that anyone older, richer or more important than you is 'better' and more deserving of respect.

Don't criticize someone in public. Known as 'gibun' this should be carried out in private to prevent loss of face and avoid embarrassment of others.

Do take a bow, essential for meeting and greeting! The best way is to observe the Korean's themselves and follow suit. A simple, short bow (not a full 90 degrees but noticeable enough) with eyes closed and head directed downwards is fine. It is not unusual for a bow to be followed by a handshake.

Don't gesture with an upturned palm. Attracting attention is done differently - the palm should be facing downward for a beckoning motion, rather than an upturned palm 'come hither' action.

Don't hug someone you've just met for the first time. It is seen as a personal violation to touch someone that isn't a relative or close friend (same goes for patting, or back slapping). Same applies when saying goodbye.


Don't use chopsticks to point or pick your teeth. It is also considered rude to have the 'mouth' end of your chopsticks touching the table, and to leave your chopsticks resting parallel on your bowl or in the bowl which resembles incense sticks used after a death.

Don't blow your nose during the meal. This is seen as very rude and offensive.

Do wait for the head of the table (usually the one who is paying) to sit down first, and take the first bite to initiate the rest of the party to begin eating.

Don't tip in restaurants (unless stated to do so). This is sometimes considered rude and mistaken as a sign of arrogance and pity.

Don't refill your own cup or glass, but do keep an eye on those around you whose drinks need topping up. In Korea, glasses are continuously refilled when empty. Same applies to food and bowls. How to end the refilling cycle? Simply accept what is offered, take a sip/bite, and leave the rest in your bowl/glass.

Do accept a drink (usually alcoholic) when offered. Being invited out to drinks with someone you view as above you is seen as a compliment, and how the superiors show they care. It is seen as a chance to bond with peers in a non-work environment. Cangai - Bottoms up!

Note: It can be impolite to refuse a drink as it is seen as turning down generosity and denying someone who is trying to help you have a good time. However, if you don't want to drink at all for religious or personal reasons, just say so.


The exchange of business cards in Korea is of higher significance and respect than in most Western countries.

Do make sure you are introduced by a third-party. Korean's prefer to do business with people who they have a personal connection with.

Do use both hands if possible when receiving and presenting a business card.

Do receive the card with thanks. Read it carefully, leave it on the table for the duration of the meeting, then file it away respectfully, such as a card-holder case.

Don't fold or stuff the card into a pocket/wallet. This is a sign of disrespect.

Don't write on someone's card or their name in red ink. This colour is reserved for names of those who have died.

At the end of the day, wherever we are from, we will tolerate anything viewed as a 'mistake' on the part of a foreigner and show appreciation and encouragement to those who are at least attempting to get things right.

By Jennifer Durbridge

Flight Centre Consultants

At Flight Centre, our consultants have travelled far and wide to offer you informed assistance when it comes to booking your next trip. These blog posts showcase just some of the experiences our consultants have had on recent adventures. We hope you enjoy reading these blog articles.