South Korea: Public Behaviour


Acceptable public conduct

Third party introductions are usually preferred, so wait to be introduced to another at gatherings and parties.

The junior person will be the first to bow. The senior person will be the first to offer his hand. A weak handshake or nod of the head may be sufficient in business circles.

South Korean men greet each other with a slight bow, and sometimes an accompanying handshake, while maintaining eye contact, unless there’s a significant hierarchy between the two. In handshaking, your right forearm is often supported by the left hand.

In South Korean business culture, professional women also shake hands. Western women will have to initiate a handshake with Korean men, unless a Korean man is higher than their status. In that case, he will initiate a handshake.

Elderly people are highly respected, so it is polite to greet and speak to them first, then spend a few minutes with them.

Complimenting an elder’s good health is always appreciated.

You may also show respect towards older people or seniors by passing objects such as food or documents with both hands.

Bow at the beginning and end of a meeting.

For seasoned international business professionals, eye contact is important to indicate your sincerity and attentiveness to the speaker. However, some Koreans have difficulty in maintaining steady eye contact with an authority figure. Some men may also avoid eye contact with women.

Gestures such as touching someone on the back or on the person’s arm are discouraged unless the individuals are friends and peers. Physical contact is inappropriate with older people, people of the opposite sex, or people who are not good friends or family. One exception, however, is that people of the same sex often hold hands.

When talking or laughing, keep your voice as quiet as possible.

Criticism of any kind should be done in private.

Like anyone else, South Koreans laugh when something is funny. Don’t assume, however, that a smile is always an indication of amusement or approval. It can be used to mask embarrassment and other feelings of distress.

Feet are perceived as dirty and should not touch other people or objects. Men should take care that the soles of their shoes are pointing down. Don’t cross legs in front of an authority figure in an open sitting environment.

Blowing your nose in public is considered vulgar. If heavily spiced Korean food makes your nose run, turn aside and blow it quietly. It will be even better to get up and move away from the table before blowing your nose.

You may beckon someone younger and junior by extending your arm with a palm down and moving your fingers up and down. Beckoning a person by moving an index finger toward you is considered very rude.

Cover your mouth when yawning or using a toothpick.

If the Korean national anthem is played in a public place, stand at attention out of respect.

You will probably see people on the street wearing surgical masks. They are wearing these masks when they have a cold. They are trying not to spread germs.

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