- Download our Moving to South Korea Guide (PDF)
If someone is visibly foreign, South Koreans generally won't expect them to understand the local culture. Expats who have been in South Korea for a while have can learn the ins and outs of the culture by observing those around them.
The language barrier is a source of culture shock in South Korea. While the younger generation will probably be keen to test their English skills on expats with a friendly greeting, most of the older people in the country speak little to no English. A simple way to ease these situations is by brushing up on basic greetings.
New arrivals should also adopt bowing, as this can work as a greeting, a sign of gratitude or an acknowledgement. South Koreans pay great respect to their elders, so expats should always bow to people who are senior to them unless they are being served by them in some way.
Cuisine in South Korea
South Korean hosts will be incredibly impressed if expats try all the food that is placed in front of them. Korean cuisine has unique tastes and aesthetics. Those with a delicate palate should build up their resilience to spicy food before they arrive, as most dishes here have a fiery or sharp flavour.
While most Western foods are available in South Korea, the local cuisine is cheaper and definitely worth a try. Vegetarians in South Korea should be aware that most of the main dishes have meat or some kind of seafood in them. It is a good idea for vegetarian expats to ask a Korean friend or co-worker to write a note for them to inform serving staff that they don't eat meat of any kind.
Trends in South Korea
Koreans are extremely fashion-conscious, a fact visible in almost every facet of daily life. New shops and eateries pop up overnight to keep up with current trends. This dynamism requires expats to be flexible to keep up with changes in trends.
For the fashion-conscious, it's wise to mirror the dress code of people of a similar age. In the workplace, it's advisable to dress formally for the first week or two and then adjust according to one's particular work environment. Women should note that although they can wear short skirts, no cleavage should ever be shown. Women also usually cover their shoulders.
A further adjustment that foreigners will need to make is that shoes should be taken off whenever a home is entered. Most locals keep a pair of indoor shoes that they change into after arriving home. Some restaurants also require patrons to remove their shoes before entering the dining area.
Space in South Korea
Another cultural aspect that takes some getting used to is the use of space. South Korean cities are crowded with apartment blocks, skyscrapers and bustling markets. Being able to adopt an 'Eastern space not Western space' mindset will be helpful, especially when negotiating apartment sizes or Seoul subway carriages during peak hours. Although the cities are crowded, there are plenty of forests, beaches and islands to escape to on the weekends.
Women in South Korea
Although Korea is arguably a male-dominated society, modern-day Korean women strongly value their independence and will generally stand up to belittlement.
A word of warning, though: women who smoke on the street, wear low-cut shirts or drink excessively will be looked down upon. Being foreign gives expats some leeway, but they will probably receive a few dirty looks if they behave this way in public.
Cultural dos and don'ts in South Korea
- Do get toilet paper before heading to the stall. Most public toilets in South Korea don't have toilet paper in each stall.
- Don't expect to eat much fruit in South Korea, as it's quite pricey
- Don't write anyone's name in red ink, as this traditionally signifies death
- Don't leave chopsticks sticking up in a bowl, as this is only done when commemorating the dead
- Do look away from the table when taking a sip of alcohol with a group of Koreans. This is considered polite.
- Don't pour yourself a drink. If another person at the table offers a refill, let that person pour it and return the favour by pouring one for them.
- Don't fold your arms when in the company of older people – this is considered rude. Rather leave them hanging by your side.
- Do always use two hands when accepting money, a business card or anything of importance
►Read Expat Experiences in South Korea for first-hand accounts of expat life.
►5 things I wish I'd known before moving to South Korea contains valuable information for those thinking of moving to the country.
What do local expats say about the culture in South Korea?
"The language barrier is definitely not easy... going to the bank, ordering food online, paying your bills, everything is in Korean and very few documents/websites are translated into English. While it can be very frustrating at times, it's also part of the expat experience, and this makes fun stories to tell back home! Perhaps another point which we didn't expect is the pollution. There are a few weeks every year when the pollution is extremely high in some parts of the country." Read Guillaume and Hammer's interview to learn more about their expat experience in South Korea.
"The biggest adjustment for me was the language barrier, but I did spend my first few weeks studying Korean and was able to hold basic conversations. Korea is very accommodating to foreigners who would like to learn the language, they even provide several free courses that you can attend. There are also traditions, like taking off your shoes, sitting on the floor, bowing in greeting, and the hierarchical structure. It can take a bit of time to learn all these aspects, but the people are always really touched to see that you appreciate their culture and are trying to engage in the customs. I didn’t experience any major culture shock, but it took some time for me to adjust to the spiciness of the food – which I now miss so much, and even cook at home!" Learn more about Bron and her experience of expat life in South Korea.
"We found it easy to make friends in South Korea, and we were quite lucky also to meet so many local friends. Either from work, yoga, sports or via other friends. South Koreans are wonderful people. Always here to help, always keen for a night out, and it's always a lot of fun! Even today, our South Korean friends came to visit us in Malaysia. This is the beauty of being expats; we now have friends all over the world!" Read more about this French expat's experience of living in South Korea.
Are you an expat living in South Korea?
Expat Arrivals is looking for locals to contribute to this guide, and answer forum questions from others planning their move to South Korea. Please contact us if you'd like to contribute.
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