Here, have a paper I wrote like forever ago on Korean etiquette and such. Enjoy! It’s kinda long, but I had fun with the research and the paper is really informative.
South Korean Etiquette, Formalities, and Everyday Courtesies
“Respect your elders,” is one thing children nearly everywhere are taught to do. In South Korea there is no exception. In fact, respect is paramount in Korean society. There are many different ways of showing respect in Korean culture, including the way one uses language and how one conducts oneself in different social or business situations. In the following pages, some of the ways of showing respect in South Korea will be discussed. Things not to do if ever in Korea or around a Korean person will also be mentioned.
Korean culture is deeply rooted in Confucianism. Not exactly a religion, but more a philosophical set of guidelines for how to live one’s life, the doctrine emphasizes hierarchy and self-control through the terms of the “Five Relationships” set up by Confucius (Vreeland, 1982, pg. 65). These five relationships are those between ruler and subject, husband and wife, parents and children, brothers and sisters, and friend and friend. Through these relationships, “Confucianism stresses duty, loyalty, honor, filial piety, respect for age and seniority, and sincerity” (kwintessential.co.uk). Filial piety is considered the basic component for the forming and shaping of personality, but it also concerns not only one’s parents, but one’s conduct toward others and one’s conduct in society (KOIS, 1993, pg. 146). Filial piety also creates a certain hierarchy in the home. Grandparents, or parents, depending on how many generations a household has, are the superiors of the house and thus demand absolute obedience and respect from the younger members of the household (Hakwon-sa LTD, 1960, pg. 622). The social order of things in a home is maintained through respect to superiors (KOIS, 1960, pg. 146). This respect is shown in many different ways which will be discussed in following paragraphs.
The first way of showing respect to elders, is through the use of respectful language. According to Vreeland (1982) in the book South Korea: a country study, “the Korean language still reflects a meticulous attention to details of status and authority embedded not merely in vocabulary but in its very grammatical structure” (pg. 66). Just like in the Japanese language, there is what could be called “polite” or “honorific” uses of the language. In Korean there are two to four levels of formality in speech, depending on who you ask. Within those levels there can be more than one way of saying a word or phrase as well. Three levels will be mentioned here. The three levels of respectful speech most people agree on are those used when addressing superiors which is formal, those used when addressing peers which is less formal, but still formal enough to be polite, and those used when addressing those of lower status or age which is completely informal. According to the Korean international student who was interviewed for this paper, she uses the informal level of speech the most; unless of course she is speaking to an elder or a teacher (Hwang, 2012).
However, regardless of which level of politeness is being used, knowing which one to use is an extremely complex and subtle matter that everyone tends to be sensitive about (Vreeland, 1982, pg. 103). This respect is shown to all in Korean society, no matter if people know each other or not. If there is a gathering of people who have not met each other before, they will use conversational tactics and cues to try to gauge the age of their conversation partner. Questions such as ones like “When did you graduate from university?” are used to determine age so one can adjust speech patterns accordingly (cnnc.uncg.edu). Choosing which level of formal speech to use with certain people is second nature to Korean speakers. But for someone just learning Korean, one has to be careful because using too high of a level or too low of a level of formality can either make things awkward between those speaking or one could even insult the other unintentionally (Hong, Lee, 2008, pg. 26).
Embedded in these levels of formality are endings on words that make what is being said formal. Verbs and adjectives in the Korean language receive different endings depending on the level of formality. This can be seen in the variations of “Hello”: annyeonghaseyo and annyeonghashimnika. Annyeonghaseyo is formal enough to be used with anyone and is the standard greeting for most meetings. Annyeonghashimnika is more formal than annyeonghaseyo and is used when speaking to a boss or to someone who is much older than oneself (eslsouthkorea.net). There is a third way to say hello which is much less formal than either of the previous greetings mentioned. Annyeong, which does not have an ending attached to it, is used with peers or younger people and is much less formal (Hwang, 2012).
The standard ending for a sentence that falls under the category of informal polite speech is one that ends in –yo. Informal polite speech can be considered the default level to use with pretty much everyone. It is polite enough not to be insulting, yet informal enough to not sound like one is trying to give too much respect to the wrong person. The ending –yo is added on the end of the verb, or in some cases the adjective, which comes at the end of the sentence in Korean. Using the –yo form of the verb shows you respect who you are speaking to. For example, if you are telling someone you respect that you are meeting a friend you would say, “jeoneun chingureul mannayo” which translates to “I am meeting a friend” (Hong, Lee, 2008, pg. 32).
Besides the endings of the sentences, there are other spoken ways of showing respect. There are certain things people are called in Korean society and it can be perceived as rude if one does not use these ways of address. In class, we learned that in Korean society there are different things to call older brothers and sisters, but it does not stop there. There are different things to call older brothers and older sisters depending on what gender one is. For example, a male would call an older brother hyeong and an older sister nuna. A female, on the other hand, would call an older brother oppa and an older sister eonni. Not only can these names be used for just biological siblings, but they tend to be used for any older male and female as a sign of respect. It is the same with elders and calling them harabeoji, or grandfather, and halmeoni, or grandmother, regardless of blood relation (Hong, Lee, 2008, pg. 88).
There are other forms of address as well. For example, using the suffix –ssi on the end of someone’s full name or first name which shows respect to a person of the roughly the same speech or social level. However, attaching –ssi to just the surname is considered rude because it can be seen as the person viewing themselves at a higher social status than the person they are referring to. It is also impolite to use –ssi after one’s own name because that makes one appear to have a large ego. There is also the addressing of just using words such as sunbae, senior, and hubae, junior. It is very similar to calling someone Senpai, senior, in Japanese (Hong, Lee, 2008, pg. 53). Adding –nim to a name or position of someone you know shows more respect. For example, if you want to show respect to someone else’s parents you would call them by eomeonim and abeonim instead of eomeoni or abeoji, which is what you would call your own parents to show them respect (Hong, Lee, 2008, pg. 58). Although most people just call their parents appa or papa, and eomma or mama, unless they really want to show them respect.
Another way of showing respect, besides using formal language, one can use certain types of body language, especially when greeting others. Koreans regard a greeting as a very important part of showing respect. It is also important that the junior greets the senior first. That is where annyeonghaseyo and the like come into play. But there are certain gestures, and body language that is added to what is said to make a proper, respectful greeting. Bowing is the most important gesture of respect. It is often used when apologizing and expressing gratitude, as well as when greeting one another. However, one has to be careful how the bow is done; otherwise it could be seen as a challenge in Tae kwon do. Bending too far or not enough, keeping eye contact, and staring at the other person’s feet are all mistakes first time bowers tend to make. The proper way to bow is to bend at the waist and tilt the head so eye contact is not kept, but the feet are not the focus point (Hong, Lee, 2008, pg. 51). On New Year’s Day in Korea is it customary for the young in the family to do a traditional floor bow to their parents, aunts and uncles, and grandparents to show their respect and to ask for their blessing for the coming year.
Handshakes sometimes accompany a bow in business settings or if it is a first meeting. However, the bow is normally initiated by the youngest of the pair or group meeting, where as the handshake is initiated by the senior of the pair or group (Hong, Lee, 2008, pg 22, 51). Handshakes normally involve two hands, the right hand grasping the other’s in the actually shake, and the left hand sits below the right elbow as though supporting the right arm. Bowing and handshakes can be combined: the way it is done is that the arm is extended and the body is bending slightly at the waist at the same time. Women do not usually initiate handshakes unless in a business setting with men, but they do not use both hands when shaking the hand of the other person like men do (Hong, Lee, 2008, pg. 22).
Other body language that is commonly used to show respect is the way Koreans beckon to others. Instead of using just a single finger to beckon, they use their whole arm to make a scooping motion in the direction in which they want the person to go. Although some people use an open palm facing to the ground and gesture by opening and closing the hand. For superiors or elders, one will often see someone using both arms to make the beckoning gesture instead of just one arm. It is considered extremely rude and insulting to beckon with just one finger, no matter who it is used for. Using an open palm facing up to beckon is used primarily for calling animals and can be seen as offensive if used for a person (Hong, Lee, 2008, pg. 21).
Nodding is another sign of respect to elders. If an elder is speaking, one will often see juniors sitting quite still and straight listening intently with a periodic uttering of “Ye”, showing they are paying attention and understanding what is being said. The more still and straight the listener is, the more important the speaker is in the listener’s eyes (Hong, Lee, 2008, pg. 22). Eye contact, which is often valued in American society, is not necessary in Korean society. Direct, prolonged eye contact, especially with an elder, is often seen as impolite, as is staring at people. Eye contact in public is especially seen as rude and can even cause hostilities. Pointing with the index finger is considered rude as well in Korean culture, so instead an open hand or the middle finger is often used to point things out (cnnc.encg.edu).
So far formalities in language and gestures have been discussed, but different types of etiquette have not. Table and dining etiquette is important to know if you want to make the right impression on people. In Korea, one must wait to be told where to sit at the table because often times there is a certain place everyone sits based on seniority or position within the group. One must also always wait to begin eating until the eldest, most senior person has started eating first. Pointing with your chopsticks is extremely impolite. When finished eating, chopsticks and spoon must be returned to their original place on the table and not left resting across the rice bowl or plate (kwintessential.co.uk). The younger members should always offer to pour a drink for their elders and must pour the drink using the right hand supported by the left hand under the right wrist. The younger must also wait to drink until the elder has taken the first sip and only then may the younger drink, but only by turning away slightly and supporting the drink with both hands (Hong, Lee, 2008, pg. 107). One thing to never, ever do when dining in Korea as it is seen as a very grave offense: never leave your chopsticks or spoon sticking out of the rice bowl, as this is seen as an offering to a deceased soul and is only practiced at a memorial service (Hakwon-sa, 1960, pg. 604). Using fingers to eat food is frowned up and should be avoided, even if it is comfortable to do so. Always use chopsticks or the spoon (asiahotels.com). One thing that is common in Korea is that people almost never eat alone. They are always eating with family or colleagues (visitkorea.or.kr).
In Korea, a table setting is quite different compared to what one would find here in America. There is normally a lot on the table. One will find a bowl of rice, a small bowl of soup, chopsticks, and a spoon at each place setting. In the center of the table and surrounding the place settings will be little plates containing various vegetables and meats. These are banchan, or side dishes. There is also the main dish on a large plate in the center of the table. In Korea, most of the time main and side dishes are shared between the occupants of the table, with only the rice and soup given singly to each person (Hong, Lee, 2008, pg. 95-6). When eating out, it is uncommon for people in a group to pay for just themselves. Paying for everyone’s meal shows generosity and it makes sure that the acquaintanceship continues past that one meeting because the other person will feel indebted and will want to repay you (Hong, Lee, 2008, pg. 106). It is also customary to be offered a second helping of food more than once. The first time being asked is to be refused, but it should also not be taken seriously by the asker. After the first refusal, a second asking will be given (asiarooms.com). The way to indicate one is full is not by leaving food on one’s plate, it is by replacing one’s chopsticks to their original place on the table (asiarooms.com). Some people may slurp their food, or chew loudly, but most of the time this is not appropriate to do, especially in business or public settings. Slurping and loud eating is only really accepted around family members and close friends and normally only in a more private setting (Hwang, 2012). Meal times are set for specific times, especially if there are members in a family who attend school or go to work in the morning. Breakfast is at 7am, lunch is typically at noon, dinner is at 7pm and then there is typically a small snack around 10pm. Eating out is common, but it really depends on the family group and the occasion. For instance, the Korean student interviewed said her family goes out to eat on the weekends when her mother does not want to cook and when there are special days, such as birthdays or other small holidays (Hwang, 2012).
Business etiquette should be formal and there are things that are required. Since Koreans do business with people with whom they have personal connections, it is really important to be introduced by a mutual third-party. Koreans are very direct communicators, so they are not afraid to ask questions. However, Koreans do not like confrontation and will often bring up a problem through the person who first made the introduction. If a meeting time is set, it is extremely rude to be late; otherwise Koreans have a loose sense of time. Meeting times are important because it is rude for a person to just show up at the person’s office and expect them to meet with them (kwintessesntial.co.uk). If ever invited to a boss or coworker’s home, it is customary to bring a small gift for the host. Many stores even provide small, already wrapped gifts for first meetings to make things easier for people (culturecrossing.net).
A few general etiquette points that should be mentioned are things like personal space, displays of affection and things that should be avoided or absolutely done if ever in Korea. Koreans prefer a personal space distance of arms length, but only if they are familiar with the person they are interacting with. If it is someone they are just meeting, or do not know well, a larger distance is required. However, with younger people and most women the tendency is to be more comfortable in each others’ personal space if they are close friends. One may often see two people of the same gender walking arm in arm or holding hands. A public display of affection between opposite genders is not a common occurrence, though. As mentioned earlier, people will bow or shake hands on greetings. There may even be a hug given if the people know each other well enough, however, affection passed that is frowned upon and not appropriate for anything outside of the privacy of one’s home (Hong, Lee, 2008, pg. 287). However, there is such thing as “skinship”, which, in a very touch based country like Korea, is not all that uncommon. Skinship is believed to be a combination of the words “skin” and “friendship”, although the act of skinship does not always just happen between friends. Skinship is just the act of touching another person to try and make them more comfortable or become closer to them. Salespeople will often use this to try and make a sale go easier (Yu-jo’ng).
Taking shoes off before entering a home is a must do unless otherwise told by the owner of the house (Hong, Lee, 2008, pg. 285). Being humble is accepted more readily than bragging. Koreans actually take it a step further and decline compliments with a phrase such as “animnida, animnida” which translates to “no, no, not at all” when someone compliments them on something (Hong, Lee, 2008, pg. 283). Making someone lose face in public, or purposefully insulting them is frowned upon. Koreans will humble themselves in front of others; however, it does not give another person the right to bash them by trying to contradict what they have said or done or by putting them down, even mildly (Hong, Lee, 2008, pg. 284).
Gift giving is a common thing in Korea. When invited to a Korean home, it is usually customary to bring small gifts such as flowers, wine, and or chocolates (culturecrossing.net). If the guest is from another country, it is always nice to bring a small gift from that person’s home country. It is a nice touch if the gift is wrapped in bright colored paper such as red or yellow, as well. It is also customary to accept the gifts with both hands and wait to open them until after the giver has left. It is considered rude if the gift is opened in front of the giver (asiahotels.com). A few things to avoid with gift giving, though. One must avoid using green, white, or black wrapping paper, as well as giving gifts in sets of four, as the number four is associated with death in most Asian cultures (culturecrossing.net).
When interviewing Ye Ji Hwang, a South Korean international student here at the University of Evansville, a question was asked about how she had adjusted to the culture here in the United States. She said when she first arrived here, she was unsure of what to do about meal times and the like when people would normally be together. In Korea, the people and culture is so close-knit and together, yet here in the U.S. people tend to be more independent. Yet she said the hardest thing she had to adjust to was the language and trying to communicate because the lack of formality when people speak to their elders. She was unused to it and it was a little unnerving, hearing people talk so informally to professors and parents and people who would deserve a lot of respect in Korea. She even spoke about one of her fellow Korean students who has taken to being informal with her even though he is younger than she is. She told me he calls her hyeong, which is supposed to be for older males, not females, or he just calls her by her name, which in Korea would get him yelled at or even a smack to the back of the head. When speaking with other Koreans, in Korean, she uses informal language, yet when speaking in English, she is still respectful to professors. She said, she is so used to bowing in greeting to those older than her, when she first arrived at the university, she would bow to professors when she entered the classroom. After being here in the U.S. for nearly a year, she has gotten used to how the language and culture works here in this country, yet she still has habits from her life in Korea and she looks forward to returning home at the end of the year (Hwang, 2012).
Throughout my research, I was surprised by some of the things I found out. I was also somewhat ashamed of being a U.S. American. Koreans respect their elders so much more than most people here in the U.S. ever have. We put our parents in nursing homes when we don’t want to have to take care of them in their old age, when people in Korea take their parents into their own home to take care of them, regardless of how much taking care of they actually need. The language formality is something I respect the Koreans for. Here in the U.S. we have two ways of speaking, the way we speak to teachers or bosses, and then the way we speak to everyone else. Neither way is actually very formal and when it is formal, it is forced and not natural sounding.
I am the type of person who watches foreign movies and I listen to foreign music, so I am not unaccustomed to seeing or listening to Korean movies or music. In my opinion, their music and movies are sometimes more appropriate because they have so much formality and a set way of doing things. For instance, they have more conservative ways of dressing, so if you see a music video, the most you will see on a woman is her legs, her arms, and maybe, a very big maybe, her midriff. The music they sing is censored as well, which means most of the music is automatically cleaner than most of the newer stuff people listen to on the radio. This is because there are different people of different age groups, and thus the music has to be appropriate for all age groups. So, in my opinion, their music is better than ours, just because they have more respect for other people and thus more respect for themselves and what they are saying.
The way Koreans greet each other is often thought of as weird or stiff by my friends when I try to tell them about Korea and why I would like to go there. I personally think their way of greeting is more respectful. Bowing with the greeting that translates roughly to “good health?” is better than saying something like “hey” or “what’s up?” and a passing glance. Public shows of affection are also interesting. Here in the United States, you are more likely to see people of opposite genders showing a lot of affection in public, but because a lot of people are homophobic or just don’t approve of it, affection between the same genders is frowned upon. While in Korea, the opposite is true. Affection between the opposite genders is frowned up, but one is likely to see younger people and women often hugging, holding hands, or linking arms in public. You might even see grown men holding hands. This signifies friendship, not love, in Korea.
When it comes to dining etiquette, a lot of things differ between the way I’ve grown up and the way Koreans are, which I found interesting. They are not allowed to really do anything unless the eldest at the table does it first. So they could be sitting there for quite a while before they start eating if the eldest does not want to start eating right away. Here in the U.S. people sit where they want to, they start eating when they want to, regardless of age. In my family, it is a very rare occasion when we all actually sit a table for dinner. Normally food is taken into the family room so my parents can watch the evening news. In Korea, dinner time is for eating, not watching television, which I envy. When my family does eat together at a table, my youngest brother is normally the first to start eating, either that or it is the first person who is served food. Sometimes everyone is polite enough to wait to eat until everyone has their food, but most of the time they do not and just start eating when they get their food.
With the language variations and the different etiquettes in Korea, in my opinion, Korean culture is a whole lot more polite and respectful of those around themselves than people here in the U.S. every will be.
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