10 simple rules for making a great impression in Korea
Traveling or living in another country is usually not an easy task. Not only do you have to get used to a foreign environment and language, but you also have to be able to navigate the murky waters of a culture not your own. For those of you hoping to make the most out of your visit, or for those of you wishing to make Korea your permanent home, you will want to pay close attention! Read on to find out how you can make a great impression on Koreans following only 10 simple guidelines!
1) Giving presents
As they say, nothing makes a bigger impact than a first impression, and this is dully true in Korea! When it comes to meeting Koreans for the first time, be it a new friend, a friend's family, host parents, classmates, co-workers, and so on, a gift will go a long way in leaving a favorable impression on your new acquaintances. This rings even more true if you have been invited into someone's home, as it is often viewed a common courtesy to bring something along when visiting someone's home in Korea (yes, even if they have told you not to worry about it). However, have no fear, the gift you bring does not necessarily need to be expensive. Something from where you are from, or even a basket (or more likely a box for those shopping in Korea) of fruit will do just fine! Remember, it's the feeling behind the gift that matters most!
2) Eat a lot
I know that this might sound counter-intuitive for some, but when dinning with Koreans, heartily eating a lot can help you make a great impression...not that this is difficult with all the amazing Korean food around you! But before you go out and stuff yourselves in front of your date, let me explain. Koreans love food and much of Korean culture centers around sharing a meal or drink with others. Moreover, Koreans traditionally love to see people (especially loved ones) heartily enjoying a meal, so much so that there is a saying that equates relishing your food with luck and fortune while picking at your food is said to chase away fortune. This still holds true for many (especially in the older generations), but today a veracious appetite has also come to stand for health. It also does not hurt that a foreign visitor enjoying Korean food shows that they appreciate what Korea and its culture has to offer.
3) Let Korean's pay
Again, this will seem counter-intuitive for some, but allowing a Korean to pay for your meal can help you make a good impression in Korea. This may sound simple, but there are a few steps to follow in successfully utilizing this to your advantage. It is culturally understood that when someone invites you to a meal in Korea, the person doing the inviting usually intends to treat the invitee. This is even more set in stone if you are a guest, or if the person doing the inviting is the oldest / most senior member of the group going out. However, before you sit back and immediately accept the offer of a free meal, a little bit of negotiation is in order to optimize your good impression. An initial refusal of the offer is culturally considered polite as well as an indication of your gratitude for the meal. Usually, the offer will be made again (most likely more strongly than before) and you can graciously bow. It should be noted that sometimes this exchange will take a significantly longer period of time as two or more members of the party offer to pay...often resulting in a fight for the bill. (Some people try to circumvent this by secretly paying for the meal before it is even over). On the flip side, don't forget that it is also a common expectation that you will offer to treat visitors or your juniors when the occasion arises!
4) Offer to pay for other things
This one goes hand in hand with #4! When friends go out together in Korea (whether to grab a bite, have some drinks, or even lose your voice at a norebang) the general rule of thumb is to take turns paying. This not only simplifies the payment process (most restaurants will not split the bill for you anyway), but also is a sign of mutual trust and generosity. If one member of the group picks up the tab this time, it is expected that another member will do so the next time. If you happen to be hitting up multiple spots for a night out in town, it is not rare for one person to pay for dinner, another for the drinks, and another for the entertainment! So if a friend of yours picked up the tab at the restaurant, offering to take them out another time, or even paying for dessert or drinks afterwords will definitely put you in on the fast track towards getting your native lifestyle membership card!
5) Giving up your seat on the bus or subway
I think this one is perhaps a bit obvious, but none the less, a major step towards making that great impression, and towards becoming a good person in general! If you have ever taken any form of public transportation in Korea, I am sure that you noticed that a section of seats is always designated for those in need of them (i.e. the elderly, pregnant, injured, children, etc.). Be it a different colored seat/cover or a sign posted on/above the section, you might have even wondered why most people will not sit in those seats, although they are empty. Well, as you can probably guess by now, this is because being polite and considerate (especially in a public setting) is a big deal in Korea! Even apart from the designated "in need" seating, you will often see a young(er)/healthy passenger giving up their seat to those who are more in need. Should such a person come by when you are on the bus or subway, try offering your seat to them! More often than not, you will probably get a nod of approval from those sitting around you. Also a word of warning: if you should be seated in a "priority" seat when someone in need passes by, you are sure to get piercing stares of disapproval from your fellow passengers. Simply be considerate and you will be fine!
6) Let them speak English
Ah, the age-old problem for so many foreigners who have or are studying Korean while living in Korea at the same time. When you are in Korea and are of the foreign persuasion (sorry guys, those of Asian heritage are generally not included), you are almost certain to encounter Koreans who are eager to practice speaking English with you. For those die-hard students of language out there, this might be one of the most annoying parts about living abroad, but if you are more flexible with your language pledge, try letting them practice a bit with you. Whether it is informally (e.g. over a cup of coffee) or more structured (e.g. language exchange), giving them the chance to use the English they have been studying since elementary or middle school will definitely put you in their good graces! Plus, apart from instantly making a friend who really appreciates you, you also might just get some Korean practice in there as well.
7) Helping the elderly
If you are interested in Korean culture at all, I am sure you have at one point or another heard the phrase, "Koreans respect their elderly." While this statement might be coming more and more into question as culture continues to change, there is a reason that this stereotype has survived this long! Generally speaking, in Korea, age differences are not only extremely important, but also dictate social decorum and etiquette. As such, one of the first things that Koreans do when meeting someone new is to check who is older / younger to instantly decide how the relationship will unfold. Taken to its logical end, showing respect to those older than you becomes the default by which you are expected to behave in almost all social settings. Thus, showing respect to those older than you by helping them when in need (e.g. crossing the street, carrying something, giving them directions) will not only show that you are a good person, but also prove to those around you that you understand and respect Korean culture. Next time you see an elderly person in need of a helping hand, don't be shy and offer your assistance! Being a good person can't hurt your reputation, right?
8) Share food and drink with others
Back to food again! Are you getting a sense of how important food is in Korean culture yet? I am sure you have heard the phrase "caring is sharing" many times before, but Koreans take sharing food to a whole new level! In Korea, there is a saying that goes, "Even if you only have one black bean left, you share and eat it with others." If you want to make a good impression with a group of new friends...or anyone really...try sharing some food with them. The next time you go out to grab a coffee or snack, grabbing another cup or bag for your friends/co-workers will really help you cement your spot in their good book! Who doesn't like to eat right?
9) Say thank you and please all the time!
By now, I am sure you see a few repeating patterns emerging, one of which is etiquette. Koreans are very big on etiquette! Simply saying please and thank you (in Korean if possible, but even English is acceptable) will really go a long way when you are traveling or living in Korea. The older generation will immediately note (or even openly comment) on how polite and well brought-up you are...and even those your age will usually give you a big smile. If you want to make a good impression on those around you make sure you don't forget your manners!
10) Sometimes, persistence is a good thing! (Koreans almost always turn things down on the first offer, out of etiquette, so ask again to get their real answer)
This last one might not make a lot of sense to some, but is definitely very important. Have you ever turned down something offered by a Korean (lets say food) only to find that they keep on offering three or four times? Better yet, have you ever offered something (take food again for example) to a Korean and was turned down, only to later find that they actually wanted some of what you offered? This is a tricky issue because in some cultures, when someone turns something down it is rude to keep on insisting (or vice versa), but in Korea it is expected that you will ask at least a few times, giving the person you are asking the chance to first decline and then accept out of politeness and etiquette. Also, if you are offered something it is polite to first decline (if they were not serious about the offer, that will be the end of it...however, if they continue to offer feel free to accept). Mastering this social dance is a sure fire way to impress Koreans! (Make sure you do not confuse this as an open invitation to pester! After a while, no simply means no!)
Do you have what it takes to make a good impression in Korea? Do you have any experiences with these situations? Let us know below!