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19 Things You Must Avoid Doing in Korea (I Warned You!)

Jason Park
Published by: Jason Park
Last updated:

Traveling to South Korea Soon?

Make sure you know these unspoken rules by heart before going. Or else your whole trip will be ruined by making one small mistake.

People in South Korea are not as outgoing as in Western countries, so first-timers often don’t know what they can, and can’t do when visiting.

Let’s get started.

Here Are 19 Things You Must Avoid Doing in South Korea:

Navigating a different culture can be tricky, especially if you don’t know much about the societal and cultural norms of a country. 

Before you step into the beautiful land of South Korea, it would be wise to understand the habits or gestures you need to avoid. 

The big no-nos in South Korean culture include gestures like not standing up for the elderly in subways or opening up a present in front of the giver. 

You should also be careful not to use only your left hand while receiving something or blowing your nose at the table.

If it’s your first trip to Korea, you may feel confused and even nervous. 

We’ve made a list of 19 cultural mistakes to avoid making in South Korea.

1. Sticking Chopsticks In Your Rice

If you’re having a meal with people around, it is considered quite rude to stick chopsticks into your rice. We’re talking about sticking them in an upright position.

In Asian culture, incense sticks are similarly stuck into bowls of sand during funerals as a way of giving food to the spirits. 

Repeating the same act with chopsticks and rice can lead people around you to believe you’re making a wrong statement. 

Even though it’s superstitious, it can be offensive to Asians and it’s best to avoid doing this if you don’t want anyone to feel uncomfortable.

2. Blowing Your Nose While Having Dinner

Let’s face it. Blowing your nose at the dinner table is not considered sophisticated in any part of the world. 

However, it makes an extremely unpleasant impression in front of Koreans. 

Not only does the gooey sound make people judge you, but it is also very unhygienic and the people around you will find you dirty. 

So, if you have a cold or a runny nose, and absolutely need to blow your nose, it’s time to head to the washroom and do the business alone. 

That’s the only right way to go about it in South Korea!

3. Sitting In Elderly Seats In Subways

When the subway is completely full and only the seats reserved for the elderly and pregnant are free, you might be tempted to go and sit there. 

No one’s there, so it should be okay, right? 

WRONG.

In South Korea, you’re better off leaving the seats empty even if no one is occupying them.

If you want to take the risk, you may go ahead, but if an elderly person sees you, a scolding and public embarrassment might be on the way. 

In many other countries, it is fine to sit in a priority seat until someone needs one, however, the correct Seoul subway etiquette is to leave it empty anyway.

4. Talking Loudly On Public Transportation

Being loud on buses or subways is considered quite rude and the locals will even call you out on it. 

Remember to be conscious of your surroundings and act accordingly when in South Korea.

5. Wearing Revealing Clothes

Don’t get us wrong; Koreans are quite modern and up to date with the world. 

However, their society does have limitations on what is regarded as a decent way of dressing.

Some clothing styles are considered inappropriate in South Korea. This includes a bare back, exposed shoulders, as well as deep necklines, and exposed cleavage. 

However, showing legs is completely fine and you can wear a dress as short as you want and no one will even bat an eye. 

Koreans actually love wearing skirts, and you can too! So, it’s not a super conservative society at all. 

6. Use One Hand To Receive Or Give Things

Using not one, but both hands when receiving or giving something is seen as an important way of showing respect in Korea. This also applies to shaking hands with someone.

If you use only one hand (especially just the left one., it is considered very rude there. 

So, it’s time to try and get into the habit if you don’t want to be seen as disrespectful.

However, you don’t have to do it all the time and in every single situation. This two-hand culture is mostly required only when interacting one on one with someone. F

or instance, pouring them water, giving them a gift, or greeting them with respect. 

7. Don’t Start Eating Before the Elders

We know how hard it is to resist mouthwatering South Korean cuisine when it’s right in front of you. 

But before you dig in, you need to look around and make sure you’re not eating before the elders. 

Even if you’re super hungry, you’re supposed to wait and let the elders start first. This gesture is also important when you’re drinking at a gathering. 

Plus, make sure not to leave the table before the elders have finished eating. 

These are considered basic manners in South Korea and if you don’t follow them, you will be seen as a rude person.

8. Don’t Mix Different Types of Trash

Koreans have an effective way of collecting trash that helps them reuse natural resources. This system is known as “jongnyangje” (종량제입니다). and it is taken pretty seriously in the country. 

The garbage has to be separated into different categories like food waste, common garbage, recyclable materials, and large waste materials.

You need to dispose of garbage properly, or you may face a penalty.   

9. Refusing A Soju Shot With An Elder

When at a restaurant, if an ajhussi or ahjumma offers you a  shot of Soju (alcohol., you should accept it in most cases. 

This is seen as a step towards friendship and mutual respect from the elder person, so it is considered polite to extend the same warmth by accepting the shot. 

If you usually don’t drink alcohol, you can have a beverage or water instead. The importance doesn’t lie in the drink itself, rather it’s the gesture or ritual that needs to be acknowledged. 

10. Don’t Drink While Front-Facing The Elders

Another interesting no-no in Korea is to avoid drinking while sitting directly in front of an elderly person, specifically in a front-facing position. 

So, what do you do? Simply turn away your face while drinking to show respect. 

It is a particularly important ritual among work colleagues as Koreans place a lot of significance on seniority. 

Someone who is a higher-up is usually treated with a different level of regard in the country.

11. Do Not Hoard Food On Your Plate

Many South Korean dishes are meant to be shared and are often served on a platter or communal bowl. However, you need to be very proper while you eat in a group.

You should pick out a reasonable amount and put it on your plate. However, don’t take too big of a serving and only take what you need for a single serving.

12. Do Not Lift the Bowl Of Rice In Front Of You

Lifting up your bowl of rice is usually not a big deal in most countries. 

However, it’s different in South Korea. As you may have noticed already, Koreans have a specific eating etiquette and they have plenty of do’s and don’ts in this area.

Well, it’s highly unusual to lift up your bowl of rice while eating in South Korea. 

You’re supposed to use a spoon to eat the rice and that’s how it should be at all times. So, remember to use your spoon even if you’re in a hurry and want to grab the last couple of bites.

13. Don’t Pour Your Own Drink

When having a meal at a gathering in South Korea, you will most likely have alcoholic drinks too. Yes, Koreans are totally into the drinking scene! 

However, the most common way to drink is by serving others and letting others serve you. 

This is a traditional custom in Korea and it’s such a cool one. 

Once you get the hang of it, you will realize how refreshing and positive it is to refill each other’s cups and enjoy the drinking experience together. 

14. Take Off Your Shoes

Another social norm in Korea is to take off your shoes before entering someone’s house. Many 

Koreans don’t wear shoes inside the house and find this unhygienic. 

Plus, you have to keep in mind that many traditional Koreans eat, sleep, lounge, and study on the floor so it makes sense to not take your shoes in there. 

This even happens in some traditional restaurants where you’re expected to remove your shoes before entering or sitting down to eat. 

15. Writing Your Name In Red

Did you know that writing someone else’s or even your own name in red is considered bad in South Korea? 

And there’s an interesting history behind this. 

In the past, it was a Korean custom to write the names of the dead in red ink in family registers. They believed evil spirits don’t like the color red and it will ward them off. 

So, it’s better not to reach out for a red ink pen if you’re writing a birthday greeting or message to someone in Korea. 

The recipient might just get offended and shocked if they see their own name written in red. They might even believe that you want them to die. 

While this may seem very superstitious or even strange to you, it is extremely important to be mindful of a culture, its beliefs, and sensitivities.

16. Don’t say “You’re welcome”

When someone thanks us, we often say “you’re welcome” as a reflex in return. 

However, in Korea, you absolutely do not need to say this. It may even be considered impolite as it isn’t seen as a normal response when someone is thanking you. 

Another important tip is to not overdo it while thanking a local. 

Just saying it once politely should be enough. You can also slightly bow down to show gratitude or respect. 

17. Don’t Expect Apologies

In South Korea, people don’t just throw an apology here and there. You might be walking on the street and get pushed by someone, but don’t expect them to say sorry. 

This is because apologizing is reserved for serious situations there.

If you fell down due to the push, then you will surely get an apology from a Korean. However, in routine situations, try not to feel offended when you don’t get the apology you were expecting. 

It’s been known that Koreans tend to be more polite than other countries, which means that it’s not the same as in the U.S. Where people walk up to you randomly to talk to you.

18. Don’t Call People By Their First Names

Before you address someone in South Korea, don’t assume it’s always okay to call them by their first name. 

While it is a good practice to know the names of the people you’re interacting with (along with their pronunciation., you should know the right way to refer to someone. 

Depending on who the person is in age or relation, there are specific Korean terms to use. 

For instance, someone elder than you is commonly called “ahjussi” which means uncle, or “ajhumma” which means middle-aged woman.

Memorizing many such terms can be difficult, so you can simply ask the person how they would like you to address them. 

19. Declining An Invitation For A Night Out

When you’re in South Korea, don’t miss out on the chance to experience the brilliant nightlife here. Get-togethers, dinners, and club nights are all super fun and exciting in this happening country. 

If someone like a friend or work colleague asks you to have dinner with them, it’s usually best to say yes unless you have an actual reason not to. 

This is especially true if you’re working in Korea or visiting for a work trip, as it puts you in their good books. 

They play lots of Korean drinking games, most of the time including different soju recipes. These are very popular in Seoul.

Final Thoughts

By now, you must have understood that Korean culture is extremely unique and places a lot of emphasis on respect for others.  

Remembering these don’ts in Korean culture will surely help you adapt better to life in South Korea. 

Plus, you won’t have to face a huge culture shock when you go and experience life in a new country.

With the right information, you can easily avoid many uncomfortable situations and become a pro at socializing with Koreans. We hope you enjoy your time!

About The Author

Photo of author

Jason Park

Jason has been living in Seoul for over 4 years, and during that time, he has experienced many of the city's hidden stores. He loves to write about his experiences and share them with others. Jason has been quoted and referenced by different major media companies like Mashed, Distractify, ThePrint and TastingTable. In his free time, he likes to watch Korean dramas and learn more about Korean culture.

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