This guide is about ensuring you don’t get into trouble while living or traveling in South Korea. One time, a friend of mine was reprimanded by her Korean boss because she was eating while walking through the hallways.
While this is generally accepted in the West, even in transit Koreans consider it rude to eat in front of others unless you’re all eating. It can be surprising to realize the number of things to not do in South Korea, and the perfectly valid reasons why these culture mistranslations occur.
While some of the conventions mentioned below are being challenged by young Koreans nowadays, you still have to be mindful if you don’t want your trip interrupted by angry older Koreans calling you out.
- What NOT to Do in Korea (Tips From Locals)
- Hail a cab with your palm up & outright
- Sit on a “special seat” in a bus or train
- Talk loudly in public
- Show your collarbones
- Pour your own drink
- Face people older than you while drinking
- Eat before the elderly
- Throw out trash in the wrong bin
- Hog the noraebang
- Give a gift in fours
- Accept things with one hand
- Leave a tip
- Wear your shoes inside the house
- Stare at people
- Get offended when you’re asked about your age
- Whistle at night
- Not use your whole hand when pointing
- Eat bibimbap with chopsticks
- Assume toilet paper is available
- Shorten greetings (use banmal with elders)
What NOT to Do in Korea (Tips From Locals)
Hail a cab with your palm up & outright
Usually we hail a cab with our palms up, similar to waving hi to a friend. Unfortunately, this gesture is identical to how Koreans call their dogs in Korea. First impressions matter, so if you try to hail a cab using this motion, there’s a big chance cabs will ignore you, not to mention many cabs these days rely on getting rides only from KakaoTaxi.
Taxi drivers don’t care about money as much as they care about politeness. To hail a cab or any other mode of transportation in Korea, stick your hand facing down, and move your hand toward you. Or just hold out your kyutong transportation card, hand tilted slightly downwards, just in case.
Sit on a “special seat” in a bus or train
Sit on a priority seat only when you have to or if an elder tells you it’s okay for you to do so. But if you don’t want to get yelled at, steer clear from the pink ones.
People will also shoot you dirty looks if you do not give up your seat to the elderly or pregnant, though I still often see young men sitting in those seats, so the dirty looks seem less effective these days.
Talk loudly in public
While this is pretty standard, whenever we’re with friends, we sometimes forget to converse in our ‘indoor voices’. Talking loudly is only okay if you have reached an age when people can’t yell at you anymore, or you’re just losing your hearing and need to shout, regardless.
I’ve certainly been reprimanded on the train because my voice made someone uncomfortable.
Show your collarbones
I recall being told to cover up after wearing a tank top, or even once a dress with a square neckline, bringing attention to my collarbones. Of course, I was perplexed to hear this after growing up wearing such dresses, but apparently, Koreans find it too appealing and distracting, especially when you bow.
Most locals are okay with girls wearing skimpy shorts and mini-skirts, however, so there’s sometimes a bit of resentment against the double standard when Americans first move there.
Pour your own drink
Koreans think it is bad luck to pour your own drink, because it may appear that you are putting yourself higher than those at your table. What makes it okay, however, is to pour a round for everybody, especially if someone’s drink is almost empty. The one who gets the last drop of alcohol from the bottle is said to get good luck.
Face people older than you while drinking
You may notice that the drinking culture here uses age a lot as a factor to decide who does what. For example, in pouring drinks, it is customary for the youngest at the table (regardless of social status) to pour the drinks for everyone with both hands. Another rule is to turn your face slightly away from others while drinking.
Eat before the elderly
Once you are seated for dinner, wait for the oldest person to begin eating first before you pick up your chopsticks… no matter how tempting the food may be. Oh, and try to match everyone’s eating speed since it may feel awkward if your plate is empty and everyone else is halfway through their food.
Throw out trash in the wrong bin
One of the essential things not to do in South Korea is to throw trash in random bags of bins. If you haven’t noticed, each container you can toss stuff in looks different, and the labels indicate what to put inside. For example, the bin with the word ‘음식’ is for food waste.
And before you drop food in there, you have to place it in the bag indicated for that type of waste or recyclables. You can buy these bags in any streetside mart or convenience store. If you need to learn more about this trash disposal system in Korea, follow this trash segregation guide for a detailed explanation.
Hog the noraebang
Even though Koreans appreciate singers and dancers, hitting the noraebang is an opportunity for everyone to shine. So please don’t use this opportunity to serenade them with ballads and hits you’ve learned before coming to Korea.
Instead, let others sing, hype them up, and only sing one song at a time when the moment comes. Also, try to keep the mood upbeat by avoiding ballads. Sing those only when you’re alone at a coin noraebang, instead.
Give a gift in fours
Locals consider the number 4 unlucky because it sounds similar to the Korean word for “death.” Hospitals and apartment buildings sometimes even skip this floor number, because some Koreans will refuse to stay in rooms or pay equal amounts of rent for rooms on the 4th floor That’s why, as much as possible, give a gift in threes.
Accept things with one hand
Another thing you should add to your ‘what not to do in Korea’ list: never accept things with just one hand. Use both hands as if you’re taking an award.
Also, to the lefties, you’ll have to get used to receiving things dominantly with your right hand while putting your left hand on your wrist for support. You should even shake hands with either both hands, or with one hand over the wrist of the shaking hand.
Leave a tip
Koreans do not expect tips (whew!). This business practice is because culturally they believe that the ‘customer is King,’ and that it is the proprietor’s duty to give good service to every person that comes to their shop. If you leave a tip, older proprietors especially may get insulted and assume that you think their business isn’t doing well.
Wear your shoes inside the house
Don’t wear your shoes inside the house if you don’t want Koreans to think you’re kinda nasty. The outdoors is dirty, and the home should be clean; this is at the heart of Korean slipper culture.
Once you enter the house, you walk into a clean space, so failure to remove your shoes disrespects the whole home and the people inside it. Plus, most Koreans sleep on the floor, especially when the ondol (indoor floor heating) is on, so it’s like walking on their bed in sneakers.
Stare at people
Even if that person looks like your favorite K-Pop idol, please don’t stare at people. It’s disconcerting, and it can make people feel anxious, especially because staring is considered rude in Korea. Unfortunately, this does not apply to vice versa.
If you look very different, expect some locals to stare at you – but they won’t usually ever talk to you because they fear you might ask them something in English.
Get offended when you’re asked about your age
I recall being asked this for the first time by my Korean boss during our first meeting. I was worried about it at first since, of course, I didn’t want to talk about it – but to Koreans, this is important because this determines how formally they will speak to you.
If they find that you are significantly older or younger than them, expect their way of speaking to you to change entirely.
Whistle at night
Most especially if you’re walking alone in a sparse alleyway, whistling, singing, and even clapping is said in Korea superstition to invite evil spirits and hissing snakes. Most Koreans, therefore, walk around at night rather quietly, often with headphones in.
Even if this isn’t true, darkness creates fear, and some Koreans walking with you might feel that you are intentionally putting everyone at risk.
Not use your whole hand when pointing
Pointing is considered rude in Korea. Instead, use an open palm to direct someone’s attention to something or somewhere specific.
Bring your palm face up to call someone’s attention and wait until they notice you. If you are in a restaurant and want the manager or imonim to see you, you can either shout their titles or yell, “jeogiyo!” As a foreigner, you might worry that this is rude for you to do, but it’s totally fine.
Eat bibimbap with chopsticks
I recall receiving a dirty look when I first tried eating bibimbap with chopsticks. Apparently, the correct way to eat it is to first mix it with chopsticks, but then eat it with a spoon. To be precise, all rice dishes are generally eaten with a spoon in Korea, from stir-frys and soups to a simple stew.
Assume toilet paper is available
What not to do in South Korea is to think that public restrooms will always have toilet paper in every stall. This situation is not the case in Korea; bidets are also scarce. That’s why if you feel like going number 2, always make it a habit to bring toilet paper before you enter any stall, to save yourself from potential embarrassment.
Shorten greetings (use banmal with elders)
My Korean professor froze the first and only time I replied “annyeong” to her without the “haseyo.” I immediately realized that I must have said something wrong. “Annyeong” may be a shortcut, but it is also the most informal way to say “hi” to people, and formality is important in Korean culture.
Remember that the only time you can use informal language is when you share the same age or if the person you are talking to is younger. Seniority is everything, but thankfully they are becoming more patient with foreigners in situations like these.
I know that this list is quite long, and remembering all of these might be a handful, so just try to remember the few you may have related to doing. Koreans are known to be serious with their customs and superstitions, so it’s always helpful to come prepared and save yourself the drama.