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Top 5 must-know Korean norms

1. Greetings

Koreans, particularly men, tend to be vastly more touchy feely than their western counterparts. It could come in many forms, the first of which being what feels like a never-ending handshake.

The handshake may go on for so long that it will have morphed into an uncomfortable handholding session. I’m starting to get used to being greeted this way so if I start holding your hand when we next meet you know why.

The touching won’t end there. He may place his hand on the small of your back or hold your bicep for a while. They’re all signs of endearment so embrace it, be happy and remember to smile!

2.Take a bow

Korean culture is based on respect, honour and tradition and bowing has a crucial part to play. Always bow to your elders and remember that you can never bow too much.

I’ll never forget the first time I met the principal of my school. School principals, unlike most western cultures, are venerated and highly respected in Korea. The red carpet is continually rolled out for every step a principal takes.

The only people afforded their own office, principals, like a CEO of a multi-national corporation, reside in spacious and cushy dwellings. I was slightly worried the finance director of the company I’m employed by, who kindly introduced me to the principal, was on the verge of having back spasms. I learned an important lesson during the meet and greet. Bow to your elders and don’t worry about bowing too much.

3. Only take what you can eat

In Korea, you’re expected to try everything at least once. Also, you’re usually expected to finish the dish. That doesn’t, however, mean you should try to be a hero. I did, and paid the consequence.

Not knowing what a certain dish at the buffet was, I naively filled the bowl with the miscellaneous food. I immediately knew that I had a certain distain for the chewy and gristly piece of meat. I was eating chicken feet and had to finish the whole lot. And so I did, but not before a bit of dry heaving and near vomiting.

Lesson learned.

4. Paying

When paying, make sure you place the cash in the attendants’ hand and not on the counter in front of them. It is seen as rude and you may or may not feel a cold and piercing gaze fly your way.

5. Cover your shoulders

This is for all the women out there. A somewhat reserved culture, especially in more rural areas, women are advised to cover up.

It’s not nearly as strict or regimented as Islamic cultures but covering up will stop older men – and women for that matter – from gawking like you’re an alien from a planet far flung. It’s like they’ve never seen a woman’s shoulders before.

So be aware and don’t leave your shoulders bare.


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Gary Pearson is a freelance writer, public relations and social media manager, former sports journalist and thirsty traveller forever in search of new adventures.He has freelanced for the Canadian Press, Blaze Magazine - the official magazine of the Calgary Flames, Zone Magazine – the official magazine of the Calgary Hitmen, The Travel Itch, Go Nomad and The Calgary Herald among others. He has lived in four continents – Africa, Europe, North America and Australia – and currently resides in London after recently moving from Brisbane, Australia. Follow Gary on Twitter: @newagejourno or on Instagram: @newagejourn0. You can also have a gander at his blog,

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