Every No-no in South Korea That You Must Know About

All the Dos and Don’ts in South Korea That Locals Wish You Knew!

Seriously, don’t be THAT foreigner.

It’s no secret that Korean pop culture has been making huge waves all over the world! From K-pop to K-dramas, their entertainment industry has become a global phenomenon since the late ‘00s. And you can bet that it’s not going anywhere anytime soon! So, it makes perfect sense that many K-pop and/or K-drama fans want to go to South Korea — and keep coming back whenever they can.

Every country has its own set of dos and don’ts that travellers ought to be aware of. And of course, this highly visited country is no exception! Whether you’re just going for a quick vacation or staying long-term, here are the top no-nos in South Korea that every traveller must know about. 

Also read: Korea Imposes Temporary Suspension on Short Term-Visas & Visa-Free Entry

Every basic no-no in South Korea

For your next trip, keep in mind these common etiquettes!

1. Don’t make snide comments about cosmetic surgery

South Korea has the highest rate of cosmetic surgeries in the world, with nearly a million procedures done annually. No wonder it’s deemed as the world’s plastic surgery capital. Some studies even claim that around one in three South Korean women between age 19 and 29 have had something done. 

So, yes, I get that it might be tempting to play a guessing game of ‘plastic surgery or not?’ with your travel buddies when you’re exploring the streets. But please refrain from doing this, or even just staring — it’s rude, you know. In fact, you’ll probably spot many good-looking locals that will make you go “woah!” But whether or not their beauty is au naturel is none of your business.

Note: The staring part includes not ogling every cute local you see, okay? That’s just creepy. Yes, even if they look a lot like your fave Korean celeb. 

2. Don’t be a picky eater

no-no in South Korea

When in South Korea, it’s a given that you should try out the spectacular local cuisine. Not just the K-BBQ restaurants and chicken-and-beer pubs, mind you, but also the street food stalls. In short: try as many unique delicacies as your tummy can handle! 

Some of these may come across as quite odd, so your first instinct might be to comment on and/or smell the food first. But take note that that’s a definite no-no in South Korea. If you must, Google the food on your phone first before buying, maybe? And for the love of all things good and delicious — don’t just stick to international fast food chains during your entire trip! 

3. Avoid being hyper or overreacting in public

no-no in South Korea

It’s a no-no in South Korea to show too much emotion in public — whether it’s anger, joy, or anything in between. Okay, so you’ve probably seen some characters on your fave K-dramas doing the exact opposite. But in real-life Seoul, you’ll probably get dirty looks when you start squealing and dancing around the streets. Or even being boisterous, in general. So, yeah, better not.

Tip: Should you get an unexpected date with a local oppa that you just met, remember to cover your mouth when you’re laughing! Though, this mostly applies only to girls.

4. Avoid talking loudly

In relation to my previous point, it also pays to be mindful of your talking volume. Indoor voices only, please! This is especially true when you’re on public transportation, where the spaces are smaller. It’s both rude and annoying, really. And don’t even think about using an excuse like, “but I’m talking in my own language anyway, so locals wouldn’t understand what I’m saying.” That. Is. Not. The. Point. 

5. Be mindful of where you sit

no-no in South Korea

We get that you’re probably tired from all that walking and exploring, and you’re so excited to rest your feet while in transit. But if you’re taking the train or bus, please take note that not all seats are a free-for-all. Some of those are ‘priority seats’ — i.e., reserved for seniors citizens, pregnant women, and PWDs. So, best to watch out for those signs before plunking down! 

Though, for easier reference, priority seats in trains are usually those beside the handle rails, while bus seats in the first few rows are marked the priority. And when in doubt, it’s better to ask a local! You wouldn’t want to be that traveller who gets dirty looks from everyone around. 

6. Be extra careful about mentioning Japan

I’m not exaggerating — that ‘extra’ is really there for a reason. You see, Koreans have a long, complicated history with the Japanese. Unfortunately, this is something that many travellers and long-term expats don’t fully grasp. So, you might want to do a bit of research on Korean-Japanese relations before your trip! 

I suppose the rule of thumb here is to approach any topic regarding Japan delicately. This includes but is definitely not limited to: the Dokdo Islands, forced labour, and referring to the East Seas as the ‘Sea of Japan.’ When in doubt, just don’t say anything even remotely about it. 

Also read: 15 Japanese Customs & Don’ts You Should Know While Visiting Japan

7. Avoid wearing ‘inappropriate’ clothing

no-no in South Korea

Just like in most Asian countries, it’s better to refrain from wearing clothes that aren’t, well, G-rated. And while we’re all about freedom of self-expression and whatnot, it’s still important to respect cultural norms, especially when you’re in a foreign land. That said, wearing revealing tops is a big no-no in South Korea. 

So, better leave those low-neckline tops, spaghetti straps and camis, and open-back shirts at home! Or at least, bring a cardigan or jacket with you. While these tops are considered okay among younger locals (such as those in Hongdae), you might get negative reactions elsewhere. No kidding — I’ve heard several stories of travellers being scolded by older Korean ladies (read: conservative aunties) in public. On the bright side, though, short shorts and miniskirts are perfectly fine! 

8. Don’t be offended when you’re asked about your age

Age is definitely not just a number here! In fact, it’s one of the ways for locals to establish a connection or common ground when meeting new people. And if you find out that you’re the same age as someone, show your enthusiasm, since they most likely would. I know it sounds a bit unusual, but yeah, just try to go along with it.

Although, do take note that in South Korea, they measure age differently. Here, they consider newborns as one-year-olds already. Hence, your Korean age is a year older than your international/actual age! 

9. Don’t dig right into your meal

no-no in South Korea

This applies for situations where you’re dining with South Koreans, especially those on the older side. This goes out to travellers going there for a business trip, semester abroad, or basically anything that involves major interactions with locals. 

Before picking up your utensils, take a look at the other people at the table. You see, it’s a no-no in South Korea to start eating before your companions do — especially if you’re not the eldest one there. As I’ve mentioned, age is a major factor around here!

When in doubt of the other people’s age, best to just wait and let them go first. More likely than not, your host will give the green light for everyone to start eating anyway. Better be safe (and polite!) than sorry. 

10. Don’t gesture at others with your palm up

Palm-up gestures might be common in many other countries, especially when you’re hailing a cab and such. However, this is a no-no in South Korea! While it’s obvious that not every foreigner knows this, some locals might still feel offended if you do this. For context: this is how they call their dogs. 

If you want to gesture at someone to come closer, you have to hold your hand up but with your palm down, and then move it up and down. Think of it as an upside-down version of a Western handwave! Trust me, this will make your life easier — especially when you’re trying to hail a cab after a long, tiring walk. 

Local superstitions worth knowing

While these aren’t exactly definite no-nos, it’s still good to be mindful of these common superstitions and refrain from doing these as well. 

11. Don’t use red ink

Avoid using red ink, especially when you’re writing down someone’s name! Back in the day, people used red ink to write down the names of deceased family members in funerals and family registers. Hence, just stick to blue and black ink for the sake of proper etiquette. 

12. Take your shoes off first

This is actually a common practice in most Asian households. But I’m still including this here for the benefit of the unaware. Before entering a restaurant or a house, check if there are any footwear lying around outside. If there are, remember to leave your shoes at the door. 

Oh, and try not to stay at the doorway/threshold for too long! Lest you want any unwelcome spirits to enter with you — well, according to local superstition, that is. 

13. Don’t place your chopsticks upright

This is a common no-no not just in South Korea, but even in other Asian countries where chopsticks are prevalent! Never stick your chopsticks into your rice bowl, as it resembles the incense burnt during funerals. You wouldn’t want others to be reminded of death while at the dinner table, would you?

Also read: 10 Things You Should Never Do If You’re Visiting North Korea

While we certainly can’t travel now due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I’m sure some of you are planning a trip here once everything has resumed to normal! That said, make sure to keep in mind these basic local etiquettes in South Korea. Trust us, the locals will be more than appreciative of your fine manners. 

About Author

Marcy Miniano
Marcy Miniano

A fast-talking caffeine-dependent wordsmith, Marcy has never been one to shy away from sharing a good story or two. If she’s not in a quiet coffee shop somewhere, she enjoys spending afternoons in a museum or art gallery — whether it’s around Metro Manila or a foreign city she’s visiting. She wishes to retire in a winter village someday, so she can fulfil her lifelong dream of wearing turtlenecks all year round and owning a pet penguin.

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