Understanding Korean Culture
Korean culture told by a Korean you can take into account when traveling Korea!
Although Korea is a modern country, there are still come specific customs and cultures that are specific to the country. When traveling in Korea, you might come across various situations where you may not know how to act or behave.
Today we put together some of those awkward situations that you might find yourself in and give you a step by step guide to the culture and how you should act in certain scenarios so you don't end up looking like a fish out of water!
Although we can't possibly include every detail and aspect of Korean culture, we will go over the important basics, like ordering in a restaurant, how to use and behave on public transportation, and shopping culture! Make sure to grab your notebooks and start jotting down notes so you are fully prepared for your next trip to Korea!
Q1. How do you order in a restaurant in Korea?
If you are traveling abroad, even simple things like calling for an employee or ordering can be nerve wrecking! However, in many Korean restaurants, you will not have to worry about this as there are little bells that are built into the table. You can just press it when you need your server!
If you are in a fancier restaurant, there might not be a bell, as they are on the nosier side. High end restaurants tend not to have bells, but do not worry! The service in high end restaurants are always great, and all you need to do to order is to simply raise your hand and make eye contact with the server.
Source: Dynamic Busan
Old fashioned restaurants and markets tend to be on the busy side so it may be difficult for the aunty to pay attention to you. In these cases, you will want to raise your hand and shout "Sajangnim" (사장님) and the aunty or server will come over to serve you.
When the waiter comes to your seat, you will place your order. Employees in Korean restaurants are quick-witted, so if you just point at the menu, they will be able to take your order!
Since Koreans are also relatively familiar with English, it will be easier to communicate via English if you cannot communicate in Korean. Also taking advantage of apps such as Google Translate or Papago might help!
Q2. Help me! I can't seem to find my utensils!
It can be frustrating when you have your food, but are not given any utensils to eat with! However, it is most likely that your utensils are just hidden away in a drawer in the table! This is something that is unique to many restaurants in Korea. The drawer usually consists of napkins, forks, knives, spoons and / or chopsticks.
If you checked for drawers but there are none, then try asking the server and they will most likely bring them out to you or show you where they are located.
Q3. I want to eat along but I heard there are foods that you can't eat alone?
Unfortunately, this is true. There are certain places that will not let you dine alone or will require that you order at least two peoples worths of food. This is often the case for restaurants where the food comes out in large portions, or food that is catered to be eaten family-style such as meat, large stews, and certain grilled foods.
It is usually difficult for the owner to sell these in smaller portions as they cooked and meant to be eaten in large portions. However, you can try to ask and see if the owner will just let you order two people's worth of food and take one portion to-go!
Q4. My food came out uncooked...what do I do?
Many Korean dishes are stir-fried, grilled, or simmered and cooked at the table therefore, you might come across times where your food comes out uncooked. This means that you should cook it yourself! If you are trying the food out for the first time and do not know how to cook it, you can ask the servers to help you cook it. Staff are always prepared to help you cook foods so just let staff know and they will help you out!
Q5. Do I need to tip in Korean restaurants?
If you are coming from a country with a strong tipping culture, you may be curious as to how much tip is customary in Korean restaurants. You might be happy to know that there is no tipping culture in Korea and you are not required to tip!
In Korea service is included in the price, so even if you do not tip, it is not looked upon in a negative manner. You only need to pay the amount indicated on the price list!
Q1. I am full..does everyone actually have to order one drink per person?
In many cafes in Korea ordering one drink per person is often customary. This is because it is believed that the price of your seat and using cafe facilities to be in the price of drinks. Although two people may come and want to order just one drink and one dessert to share amongst themselves, depending on the cafe, the cafe owner may require that you order one drink per person in the party.
However, in the case of take-out, this rule does not tend to apply as you are not taking up space in the cafe. So if you heading to a cafe with your friends but feel too full to order a drink, try ordering to-go!
Q2. Can I stay at the cafe even though my time limit is up?
Some cafes in Korea have restrictions on cafe usage hours. It doesn't happen often, but if it is a very popular cafe, there may be limits on the time that you can occupy the cafe. The time limit usually is around two to three hours, which is enough to enjoy the cafe. However, if you want to get some work done, or plan on being at the cafe longer than the time given, it is recommended that you order an additional menu item and ask the owner if you can stay a little longer.
Q1. The transportation in Korea is confusing! How do I know how to get to my destination?
Korean public transportation is highly efficient and a great way to get around during your trip. However, if can be confusing if it is your first time using it. Even though it can seem overwhelming at first, there is no need to worry! Korea has many ways to help you figure out your route to get you to your destination.
Although you may be more familiar with Google Maps, Koreans tend to use Naver Maps or Kakao Maps. These two applications are a little more updated than Google Maps is in Korea. They also show real time stats of the wait time for the busses or trains as well as how crowded certain carriages are. They also give out multiple ways to get to your destination so you can scope the various routes and choose the one you feel works the best for you!
Nave Maps and Kakao Maps both have English, Chinese and Japanese settings so you can change the language from Korean as well to navigate it easier.
Q2. My legs hurt so much and I really want to sit down but the only seats available are reserved for elderly and pregnant women..What do I do?
When you get on Korean public transportation, you may come across seats that are pink or yellow or have some sort of pink or yellow cover on the seats. The pink seats are reserved for pregnant women and the yellow seats are for the elderly.
This does not mean you cannot sit here! However, they are supposed to be available for those that need it if be. If you are sitting in an elderly reserved seat and see an elderly come on the bus, it would be nice to give up your seat so that they can sit there!
However, on subways, people tend to just leave the seats empty. This could be due to the fact that standing is much easier on a subway compared to a bus or because it can be hard to figure out who may need the seats as there are much more people on subways.
Q3. Why do I need to scan my transportation card when getting off the bus?
If you used cash to use the public transportation system, this doesn't matter, but for those who use a Korean transportation card, always make sure to scan your card when getting off the bus as well!
This is because you will get a discount if you transfer or get on another transportation method after! Even if you are going on a subway after taking the bus, this is still valid, so make sure to scan before getting off.
Q4. Can I eat on public transportation?
For safety reasons, in Korea, transport drivers can refuse to allow you to ride with food that is not seals or without proper packaging. You can ride with food that is sealed on the top and bottom so that the contents do not leak such as packaged foods or a closed water bottle, but you cannot board with food that can spill such as cup rice or a drink without a lid.
Also, eating on public transportation is not allowed. The driver may ask you to get off the public transportation if you are seen eating.
Q5. I left something on the bus/ subway before getting off! What do I do?
There are many times where we have gotten off a bus or train only to realize we left something behind!! If you also find yourself in a situation like that, do not panic! If you go to a nearby tourist information center or police station, you can ask for help with your bus number or taxi payment information.
If you lose your belongings on the subway, try to remember what subway line and cart you got on (ex. 104, 7-3 etc) and ask the station attendant at each station near the gates for help.
It may take a while, but 9 out of 10 times, you will get your stuff back and find it! However, going through all this is a stressful process so make sure to double check before getting off to avoid such situations!
Source: Kakao Taxi
Q6. I need to get on a taxi but I don't see any around!
What do you do when you are trying to get a taxi, but there seems to be no taxis around? First, you can try looking for a taxi boarding zone, which is an area where taxis tend to wait for customers. However, if you cannot find one of these boards nearby, you may want to call a taxi to you via an app!
The most widely used app is called Kakao Taxi, and is an app that calls a taxi to your exact location. You can pay and even choose what type of car you would like to ride on through the app so it is a very convenient app to use! This app is also available in English and Japanese so you can change the settings accordingly.
Q1. I am out in public, but I am in a hurry to go to the bathroom. What do I do?
If can be a hassle to find public toilets in Korea. The best chance you have to find a public toilet is heading to a nearby subway station. Since each subway station has a bathroom, heading to a subway and using the bathroom there might be your best bet at finding a public toilet.
Source: AI Times
Another place you can try to go to is a nearby cafe or convenience store! We suggest a cafe as the bathrooms tend to be cleaner than convenience stores. However, you man be required to buy a drink...but desperate times call for desperate measures!
Q2. What if I urgently need to use the restroom on public transportation?
For transportation over short distances, get off at the nearest station and find a nearby public restroom in the station or at a nearby shop!
In the case of trains such as KTX and Saemaeul, there are toilets in each carriage, so you can use the in carriage toilets.
However if you are on an express bus, it may be difficult to find a bathroom. What should you do if there is still quite a journey left? For emergencies, try to tell the driver your situation! The driver will try to go to a nearby rest stop and accommodate for you!
Shopping in Korea
Q1. Can I try on clothes in Korea?
This varies from store to store. However, many smaller boutiques and independent clothing stores may not change a changing room. It is also common in Korean clothing shops to not allow shirts to be tried on if you have on makeup to ensure that your makeup does not transfer to the clothes.
Some clothing shops will give you a face cover (pictured above) that you put over your head before you try on shirts so that your makeup will not get on the clothes.
Q2. I got all these little samples after I purchased some cosmetics and skincare products!
Many cosmetic stores in Korea offer samples when buying cosmetics, even if you are not apart of their loyalty program or your purchase is not in a promotion. This is because these sample size items are used by Koreans for when they travel, so many stores will give mini sample sizes of the products bought so that they can be brought along on travels. It's a nice touch to your shopping experience isn't it?
Q3. Is there a way to get a discount when shopping?
You will be doing a good amount of shopping when coming to Korea, so it would be nice to know how you can save a little here and there! Normally, stores will have a little discount for those purchasing with cash instead of card. Try to look out for those events and discounts, because they can usually be up to 10 percent off! That might not sound like too much, but it will definitely start to add up!
Koreans and Foreigners
Q1. I don't know how to speak any Korean at all! Will I be okay?
Throughout your travels, you will come across Koreans and be in a situation where you may have to speak with Koreans. Many Koreans are able to understand simple English phrases, so try to communicate to the best of your ability with them in English if you cannot speak Korean. Koreans are friendly towards foreigners and many will be willing to help, just try to make sure that you are also patient with them because they might also not be the most comfortable with speaking in English.
Source: Radio Star
Q2. What do Koreans think of Foreigners?
In the past, Koreans were not as open to foreigners as Korea was a fairly homogenous country and it was hard to come by foreigners in Korea. However, the number of multicultural families is gradually increasing and schools now include much more curriculum that teaches students about other cultures.
Korea is slowly becoming a more open and diverse country! Koreans in general are welcoming to foreigners and will want to help you out!
Other Korean Culture
Q1. Do Koreans drink alot?
If you are a student or in the workplace in Korea, you may begin to notice that Koreans tend to have a heavy drinking culture! If you feel as though you can no longer drink, please make it clear that you cannot take any more alcohol and stop drinking. You never want to be in a situation where you drink more than you can handle.
Q2. Where can I throw away my trash?
If there is a nearby trash can, you can throw away your trash there. However, if you are out in public and have accumulated trash, it can be difficult to figure out what to do with it. Korea does not have that many public trash cans, so you may need to use a trash can in the bus/ subways station or at a cafe or restaurant.
Remember that Korea is strict about waste separation, make sure to separate your plastic, paper, cans, liquids and trash accordingly to avoid getting fined or in trouble! Even just throwing away a piece of gum or cigarette butt in the wrong place can result in a fine of 100,000 KRW!
Source: Korea Police Department
Q3. Is Korea safe?
Korea is a safe country. When it comes to leaving your belongings out in public, it is rare that someone will take your personal belongings. There are also CCTVs everywhere so streets and public areas tend to be safe as well.
If you need to contact the police station the number is 112. If you need to contact the fire department call 119. If you are in an emergency station, dial one of these numbers or visit the nearest police station.
Korea is also well known for their night culture. There are always lights on and the streets are always crowded until late in the night! Busses and public transportation also tend to run late at night! Although Korea is a very safe country, you should always make sure you are aware of your surroundings and take precautions!
We hope that this gave you some insight into Korean culture and prepared you for your trip! If you have any other additional questions, please leave a comment below or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org! You can also follow us on Instagram, Tik Tok, and Facebook to stay updated on all things Korea!