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Center for International Studies
Member, Texas Tech University System The Princeton Review - 373 Best Colleges, 2011 Edition

Gyeongbokgung palace, Seoul, South Korea

South Korea

Korean Society and Culture

Traditional Korean Society

Although South Korea is modernizing extremely fast, it still holds on to many traditional values and the old way of life. Where there are not highly populated cities, there are rural area’s which are still relatively poor, and still follow traditional ways of life. In cities, millions of people live in apartments, but in the rural area’s you will find traditional housing. Also, even though the cities are headed toward very modern times, people still hold onto some traditional values. One thing that guarantee’s this is the language. The language has traditional values of social status and respect built directly into it. Words change depending on who you are speaking with. This will keep traditional values always present.

Korean People

Korea is one of the most homogeneous countries in the world, racially and linguistically. It has its own culture, language, dress and cuisine, separate and distinct from its neighboring countries. Hard work, filial piety and modesty are characteristics esteemed by Koreans. They are proud of their traditional culture and their modern economic success. Education is highly valued as the path to status, money and success

Etiquette and Customs

Meeting Etiquette

  • A bow is the traditional South Korean greeting, although a handshake can accompany a bow among men. The person of lower status bows to the person of higher status.
  • Say “man-na-suh pan-gop-sumnida” when initiating a bow. It means pleased to meet you.
  • Korean women will not shake hands with Western men. Western women may offer their hands to Korean men.
  • Bid farewell to everyone by bowing when leaving a social event.
  • Don’t use Koreans’ given names. Use their professional title unless specified to do otherwise.
  • Korean names are the opposite of Western names with the family name first, followed by the two-part given name. Use the family name when addressing a Korean.
  • Avoid touching, patting or back slapping.
  • Keep your feet on the floor at all times and do not cross your legs.
  • Never point your index finger.
  • Always pass and receive objects with your right hand or with two hands.

Gift-Giving Etiquette

  • Wrap gifts nicely. Use red, yellow or pink paper for wrapping.
  • Give gifts using both hands.
  • Give liquor, fruit, desk accessories, small mementos, gifts from France or Italy.
  • Don’t give someone an expensive gift if you think they will not be able to reciprocate. In South Korea, gifts are almost always reciprocated.
  • Don’t wrap gifts in green, white or black.
  • Don’t give gifts in multiples of four.
  • Don’t sign a card in red ink.
  • Gifts are not opened in front of the giver.

Dining Etiquette

  • Don’t sit until told where to sit.
  • The eldest are served first and begin eating first.
  • Don’t pour your own drink, but instead offer to pour for others. It is common to fill each others cup. Leave some drink in your glass if you would not like another refill.
  • Don’t eat with your hands.
  • Don’t point with your chop sticks, pierce food with your chop sticks or cross your chopsticks when placing them on the chop stick rest.
  • Try to eat a little bit of everything.
  • Pass food and drink with your right hand while using your left to support your forearm.
  • Refuse the first offer of second helpings. This is considered polite.
  • Try to eat everything served to you.
  • Don’t ever place your chopstick’s parallel across the bowl. To indicate that you are finished eating place your chopsticks on the chopstick rest.
  • Don’t criticize Korean cuisine because they are very proud of their food.

Quick Facts

Climate: Humid climate; cold winters and warm summers with considerable rainfall from typhoons during the summer.

Population: 48,379,392 (July 2008 estimate)

Ethnic Make-up: Korean 97.7%, Japanese 2%, Other .3%

Religions: No Religion 46.5%, Buddhist 22.8%, Christian (Protestant 18.3%, Roman Catholic 10.9%), Other 1.4%

Government: Republic

Languages in Korea: Korean is the official language. The fact that all Koreans speak and write the same language has been a crucial factor in their strong national identity.