The differences between Korean and American culture

Are you moving to Korea soon? There are a lot of social etiquette rules you should follow. Here is a basic guide to understanding the cultural differences and how to fit in!

1. Showing Kindness

Showing respect and generosity in Korea is big! When I first came to Korea, I had trouble using the subways and immediately someone came and directed me in the right direction. Most people living in Korea try their best to not disturb anyone! On subways they will speak quietly, on escalators they make space for those in a rush, and if they notice someone taking a picture they wait to pass. In Seoul specifically, people try their best to mind their own business. That means you don’t say ‘bless you’ if someone sneezes 😂 . 

In America kindness is also shown, but in a completely different way! Kindness is shown through direct actions such as smiling, helping, or asking. Openness is seen as a type of politeness in America. However, when traveling to Korea, be sure not to push anyone’s boundaries as goodwill is viewed as being quiet and not bothering anyone else (unless needed). 

You can show kindness in Korea by bowing at the store clerks or as a way to say thank you to strangers. You can also try not to take up too much space in the subway chairs, use both hands when receiving/giving something to someone, and apologize when you need to move through a crowd of people. 

2. Subway Etiquette

Yes subway rules gets a whole separate section 😂  There are actually quite a few rules I recommend following when using the subway in Korea:

  • Wait for everyone to exit before boarding the train
  • Don’t sit in the seats reserved for the elderly
  • Don’t be loud
  • When sitting down, don’t cross your legs (it is seen as rude if there are a lot of people standing up)
  • If it is very crowded and you need to get through, apologize (or if you aren’t comfortable using Korean, just gently tap the person on the shoulder to let them know you need to pass)
  • Don’t eat on the train (you can’t now because of the pandemic, but even before COVID it was seen as rude to eat on the train)

Here is the complete guide to using the subway in Korea: Master the Subways in Korea

3. Body Language

Many Koreans tend to communicate a lot through body language! This is very helpful if you don’t know Korean. A few things you should remember:

  • You can make an X with your arms to signal ‘no’ the same goes for when you see it! It just means no
  • Don’t smile at strangers! It is seen as a slightly strange thing to do in Korea. Although this is a habit still stuck with me 😅 I am working on it T.T
  • When buying something, the clerk will signal with their hands for you to put your card in and when take it out
  • And of course bowing – this is seen as a sign of respect. It is important to do it when meeting someone for the first time, entering someone’s home, bumping into someone, thanking someone, etc. Bowing is a great way to show your appreciation. There are different types of bows, essentially the deeper it is, the more respectful. However, in most situations a slight bow with your head is great! 

Body Language in America is a bit harder to generalize! Because so many cultures live together, there are many different forms of expressing oneself. One thing that many people do however, is to smile or wave at strangers. This is viewed as normal and kind in America. 

4. Diet Culture

Diet culture in both Korea and America is very big. Just remember to be respectful. When I first came to Korea, I was surprised by the openness of dieting and comments on other people’s weights. It is something that happens and is normal in Korea. 

Personally, I don’t engage in those types of conversations or comments, however I don’t judge or shut them down. You have to come with an understanding mindset. What is normal here is not necessarily something you may be comfortable with. Be ready to adapt. 

5. Drinking Culture

Drinking culture is pretty big in Korea! If you are going out with a superior from a professional setting (like work) here is some advice:

  • The youngest member should set the table with napkins, chopsticks, spoons, and water
  • Don’t pour your own shot, it is bad luck- instead offer to pour someone elses shot (use your right hand to hold the bottle)
  •  When cheering with someone older than you, hold your shot glass slightly lower
  • In a professional setting, make sure to hold the elbow of the arm you are cheering with
  • It is custom to down/finish your drink on the first round
  • Refuse if you can’t drink anymore! Nowadays people are very understanding, so if you drank too much or don’t want to continue drinking, its ok to say no (politely)
    • Or just don’t finish the drink you already have 😂  In Korea no one will refill your glass until it’s completely empty, so take your time!

Final Tips:

Korea’s culture is extremely different to the one you may be used to. It is important to come with an open mind and get ready to learn. This is just basic information to prepare yourself for the differences. However, each individual person is different and may not fit the culture norms. 

The most important thing you should do is understand that this is a different country, with an entirely different history. What you think is normal, people living here may see as strange and vice-versa. Just be respectful, kind, and adapt. 

You are sure to have a great time in Korea!!

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