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South Korea A man and a woman standing in front of a building during their travel to South Korea.

When To Bow In South Korea (and other rules of etiquette)

When travelling to another country, one is confronted with different customs and traditions, and Korea is no different. Like all Asian cultures, Korea has a set of rules to follow, imposed by society on certain occasions including knowing when to bow in South Korea.

Let’s take a look at the top 7 rules of etiquette including bowing in Korea.

1. Take off your shoes

It is a good rule of etiquette in most homes in Korea to take off your shoes before entering. You don’t wear shoes in the house, because it’s not hygienic after walking down the street, and Koreans, like many other Asian people,  sleep, study, eat, and spend most of their time on the floor.

It may even be the case that in some traditional, wooden-floored restaurants, you are required to remove your shoes, so don’t be too surprised!

2. Bowing

Just like in Japan, in Korea people bow as a sign of respect, especially between people they don’t know or work colleagues. It is not uncommon to see students bowing when they meet their sunbae (older student), just as it is common for the ajumma at the restaurant (middle-aged lady) to bow when greeting you.

There are various types of bowing: the more informal ones consist of simply bowing your head, while the more formal ones involve deep bows in which the degree changes depending on the person you are greeting (literally, 15°, 30°, 45°, as if you were standing there with a protractor calculating them).

In Korea, welcomes often involve bowing, like in many other Asian nations. It’s a method to greet people, express respect, and say good-bye. Therefore, to learn more about bowing in Korea, watch this video if you’re unsure about how or when to do it.

In Korea, a minimal head tilt is considered acceptable when meeting someone informally. In addition to using this straightforward bow to say hello, bye, and thank you.

The lower you bow, the more respect it conveys during meetings with highly important persons (it also shows more respect if you hold the bow for a longer period). Hold your hands out in front of you or to the side.

The “great bow,” or keunjeol, is the most reverent bow. This is only done to be respectful and on the most formal of occasions. On Lunar New Years (seollal) and the Harvest Festival (Chuseok), Koreans frequently give their elderly relatives a large bow (keunjeol).

Additionally, it is employed in the ancient Korean ceremonial known as jesa, which honours ancestors. Additionally, when a man asks a woman’s parents for her hand in marriage, he will treat them in this manner. Korean girls will occasionally do a short bow (jakeunjeol) instead of a grand bow (keunjeol).

3. Drinking in company

As you may have seen, drinking culture is very important in Korea. Drinking in company is a sign of unity, respect for the elderly or higher-ups, and is also a way to relieve tension after work.

Among the rules of drinking in Korea there are:

  • never pour your own drinks
  • never pour a drink with one hand (hold your wrist or elbow with the other)
  • never drink in front of an elderly person, but turn slightly to the right
  • never refuse a glass (unless you are allergic or you don’t drink, then it is good to mention this beforehand).

A secret: if you don’t want to drink like a sponge, try never to empty your glass. It is only filled when empty!

4. Sharing food

Koreans traditionally like to share food with their dining companions. That’s why when you go out to eat at someone’s house or a restaurant in Korea, you’ll be served a series of small plates as an appetizer, which you’ll share with others at the table. Also when ordering food, if you are going with friends or a Korean partner, it is good to order food that can be shared.

If you ask “What about pizza?”, that’s also shared. It is already served in slices, and it is not good etiquette in Korea to eat a whole pizza by yourself.

The same applies to gifts and money, including credit cards. If you may have your hands full with bags and envelopes, and you need to pay at the checkout, it’s OK to use one in that case.

5. Don’t sit in reserved seats on the train

It is deeply disrespectful to sit on reserved seats in the train. They are always a different colour from the others, and there are 9-12 of them on each train. You may not notice it at first as a foreigner, but you may be rudely told off, in Korean, by the person to whom the seat rightfully belongs to (elderly, disabled or pregnant women).

6. Respect the elderly

This would be a good rule to follow in any country in the world, and we should often take Korea as an example. Apart from giving up their seats in trains or buses, Koreans are generally very respectful towards older people. This can be seen in the way they call each other, using specific terms depending on the age of the other person.

An example is at the dinner table, where you have to wait until the older people have picked up their chopsticks before you can start eating. If you’re not sure about the person’s age you’re eating with, it’s best to wait for them to start before you do, so you don’t risk making a bad impression.

7. Writing your name in red

Even if you are not particularly superstitious, it is best to avoid writing your name or someone else’s name in red. In the past in Korea, it was customary to write the names of the dead in red on family registers or funeral insignia. It is said that evil spirits hate the colour red.

These are the main rules of etiquette in Korea. Are there any others you were shocked to learn (or were you lucky enough to discover them before any embarrassing incidents)? Shoot us a message.

For more information on Korean life and culture, follow our blog.

James Yeong
James Yeong

Once a quaint dweller of the English countryside, James is now a vibrant voice narrating his adventures in the bustling heart of South Korea. Since relocating to Seoul in 2019, James has immersed himself in the dynamic tapestry of Korean culture, from the serene temples tucked away in mountainous terrains to the neon-lit streets of modern cities.

This blog has become a haven for those seeking an outsider's yet intimate perspective on South Korea, often shedding light on hidden gems and local favourites rather than just the typical tourist hotspots. With a keen eye for detail and a writing style dripping with wit and warmth, James has managed to amass a devoted readership from all corners of the globe.

Whether you're planning a trip to the Seoul, the surrounding cities or just vicariously traveling from the comfort of your couch, Jame's tales of exploration and discovery are sure to ignite a passion for the Land of the Morning Calm.

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