In the last few decades, Seoul has exploded in popularity as a place for expats to create a new home. It’s not hard to see why, either. The booming metropolis offers a fast-paced, exciting lifestyle and more artistic potential than you could shake a stick at — not to mention some of the best food on the planet.
But as with any new venture, there’s going to be an adjustment period required in the beginning, and when it comes to Seoul, that statement is really better described as an understatement. Here are a few key things you need to know about Korean culture before your plane touches down.
1: Confucianism Prevails
Unlike in the West, Korean people follow a rigid hierarchy in the way they organise their society. Based on principles described by the philosopher Confucius, Korean culture places a huge amount of importance on respect for elders, the importance of family, group harmony, and tradition.
Don’t be surprised if you’re often asked what your age is — it’s not rude, it’s just a way to work out where you fit in. If anything, it’s the opposite of rude, as the asker probably most likely wants to figure out the most polite way to address you. You don’t need to be a strict Confucianist to fit in: just make sure you show your elders their due respect and you’ll be welcomed into the fold in no time.
2: Going to Somebody’s House is Serious Business
In line with the traditionalism that still echoes throughout Seoul and the rest of Korea, receiving an invitation to somebody’s home is a huge honour, and there are a few rules you need to get your head around before walking through the threshold. For one thing, punctuality is highly respected. Korean culture may permit you to be up to around a half hour late, but if you’re on time it’ll go a long way.
Don’t pour your own drink (your host will do this for you), and take your shoes off at the door. Bring a gift in order to show your appreciation for your host’s kindness, and don’t leave on your own, either — you’ll be walked to the gate by the host, which is another sign of respect.
3: Avoid These Taboos
Even though in general you’ll be able to get by perfectly well if you just remember to be respectful at all times, there are a few definite cultural no-no’s you’ll want to avoid. Personal space is an important one, particularly between two people who aren’t met yet — aim for an arm’s length to be safe, and allow your native acquaintance to bridge the gap before you do.
Another point to take into serious consideration is the way you conduct yourself with regards to messaging. Life in Seoul is lived fast, and though in the West it’s not the worst thing in the world to ignore a message for a few days, things are very different in South Korea. You need to avoid ignoring messages at all costs. Whether it’s Whatsapp or Kakao Talk, leaving a contact on ‘read’ for a few hours is offensive — and we won’t even get into what happens if you leave it for a day or more. It’s an easy fix: reply promptly to any inbound communication and the Korean people will repay you in kind.
It may seem like a long list of things to worry about, but the Korean people are exceptionally friendly and warm once you get to know them, and they’ll understand the culture shock perhaps even better than you will. Above all, remember to be respectful of Korean culture once you arrive in Seoul — the right attitude will go a long way, and your new friends will appreciate it greatly.
If you’re on the way to Seoul but aren’t quite sure where to get started, why not check out our events? They’re the perfect way to meet new people and get yourself grounded in the new culture, so check them out and sign up to any that look promising — they won’t let you down.