If someone is visibly foreign, South Koreans generally won't expect them to completely understand local social and cultural practices. Expats who have been in South Korea for a while have quickly learnt the ins and outs of the culture by observing those around them.
The language barrier is a source of culture shock for expats moving to South Korea. While the younger generation will probably be keen to test out 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 as 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 over night to keep up with current trends. This dynamism requires expats to be flexible in order 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 to adjust according to one’s particular work environment. Women should take 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 at home. Some restaurants also require patrons to take off 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 does give expats a bit of 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 extremely expensive
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 your own 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 in front of yourself 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.
"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.
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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