South Korea is a fascinating place when it comes to culture and etiquette. A weekend in Seoul is all it took to spark a vivid interest in this hub of plastic surgery, which I learned became a thing after the Korean War. It all started when American occupational forces offered war victims free reconstructive surgery.
Speaking of the war, the country was a wreck in the early 1950s. Its G.D.P per capita was even lower than that of Somalia. Today though, South Korea is rich and advanced infrastructurally and technologically wise.
South Korean culture is all about hierarchy, respect and homogeneity. If you go there, or deal with South Koreans in your own country, you should know the basic etiquette rules.
1. Avoid direct eye contact with a senior person. It’s considered impolite and can be perceived as a challenge. Instead, go for a small bow. Hierarchy is key in Korea. So if you go for business purposes, make sure you read about business etiquette. Bottom line: show utmost respect to anyone who’s older than you.
2. When you shake hands, support your right forearm with your left hand. This technique will be useful in many other situations, for example when you hold your glass to cheers or a bottle to refill someone’s glass. When you give or receive anything, from a business card to a subway ticket, use both hands. It’s a matter of respect. Bottom line: always use two hands.
3. Look your best, otherwise it’s a sign of laziness and it can reflect badly on your partner or team. South Koreans put a lot of effort into their appearance. Not only do they dress well, but one in five women have had some form of cosmetic work, compared to one in 20 American women according to data from the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons. And it’s no taboo.”What’d you get done?” is a normal question. Bottom line: pay attention to your looks.
4. Don’t extend your hand to Korean women. They don’t shake hands but rather nod. And although Korean men do shake hands, the bow is the traditional greeting. A Western woman can offer her hand to a Korean man, but should not to a Korean woman. Bottom line: when in doubt, bow.
Insadong (Street) – Stroll around this traditional shopping street to enjoy public performances and visit modern art galleries. And don’t miss Ssamzigil, a shopping mall with specialty stores of handcrafts where you’ll also find poop-shaped pancakes. Go on Sundays when it’s most lively and vehicles have limited access.
Bukchon Hanok Village – Book a three-hour walking tour in Bukchon Hanok Village to discover traditional Korean houses (hanoks) that have been transformed into cultural centres, guesthouses, restaurants and tea houses.
Dongdaemun Design Plaza – If you’re interested in design or simply enjoy creative stuff, spend an hour or two at this spaceship-looking landmark. There’s a museum, a design shop and other facilities for design-related exhibitions and events.
Hongdae – Pass by this cafe and nightlife area for students that’s well-known for its indie scene, urban street art, and underground music. You’ll also find many clothing shops and eclectic theme cafes for characters and pets.
Bukhansan National Park – If you’re a hiking fan like me, head to Bukhansan’s highest peak at 840 m (or 2700 ft) above sea level and enjoy a nice view over Seoul. It takes about 2 to 3 hours to reach the top depending on the trail you choose. Note that trails are spread all around the mountain, so make sure you take the right bus—I didn’t pay attention to this and got to the wrong trail.
Itaewon – Spend at least one evening in this “international” neighbourhood filled with some of the best Korean and international restaurants in the city. It’s also the perfect spot to experience Seoul’s nightlife. I stayed at the Hamilton Hotel, which I liked because of its central location. Nightclubs are right behind though, so it can be noisy at night.
Military border – If you’re adventurous and fearless, consider visiting the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), where democracy and communism stand face-to-face. I didn’t have the chance to go because tour reservations must be made two to five days in advance and I was too last minute, but I heard it’s worth it. See tourdmz.com.
Have you been to Seoul? What else did you notice?
Special thanks to my friend Diana Park for her insights about Korean etiquette.
Interesting reads about South Korean culture and history:
Like 8tiquette on Facebook to continue the conversation and subscribe to 8tiquette’s YouTube channel.