People from different cultures understandably act differently when in public. What may be acceptable behavior in one culture may in fact surprise, shock or even anger a person from a different culture. To help lessen the chance that you may be shocked or offended by something you see or experience in a public place in Korea, PlanetESL has created the following list of things that are very common in Korean culture, but may not be so acceptable in others.
Public Affection: Boyfriends and girlfriends show very little affection for each other in public. Kissing is quite uncommon, for it usually means the relationship is very serious and will likely lead to marriage. Contrary to this, however, friends (people of the same age) show quite a bit of affection for each other in public. It is not uncommon for two men or two women to hold hands or walk arm-in-arm when walking down the street, dance together, or touch each other’s hair or face. This can be a little unnerving to other people from cultures where public shows of affection between people of the same gender is often an indication of gay or lesbianism.
Not Waiting Their Turn: Not seen quite as often in Seoul as in the smaller cities and the countryside, whether you are waiting in line at the bank, in store, at the doctor’s office or getting on the bus, people of all ages will just push in ahead of you as if you and anyone else waiting in line were not even there. Queues and waiting one’s turn are foreign concepts in a small densely populated country where you learn to grab what you can when you have the chance, because if you don’t, someone else surely will.
Pedestrians Beware!: Contrary to car and pedestrian culture in North America where vehicles almost always stop and give pedestrians the right of way and are very sure to steer wide of people walking, in Korea it is completely up to the pedestrian to be aware of vehicles around them and make sure that they are a safe distance away when crossing a street or walking down a narrow lane. It is very common for vehicles to pass a walking pedestrian with barely inches to spare if they feel that they can squeeze by. Foreigners who are not expecting this can get a huge shock when their elbow receives an unexpected knock from a vehicle side-mirror because they moved suddenly just as the car was passing! Pedestrians must be constantly aware of their surroundings anytime they are walking in any location a car or motorcycle can access, whether that be sidewalks, narrow streets or even walking out of a store!
Spitting: Not done by just the men, even younger women in their 30s can be seen sometimes leaning over the street and letting a big gob drop out. You might hear someone hacking up a lung and loudly spitting it out behind and be shocked when you to turn around and find a 70-year old grandmother!
Taking Your Bag on the Bus: Don’t be alarmed if you are standing on the bus or subway train andsomeone who is sitting reaches out and tries to take your backpack or other heavy item you are carrying. They are just offering to share your load because they are sitting and you have to stand. They will give it back as soon as you make to leave.
Flagging Down the Bus: In Korea, to let the bus driver know that you want to take that bus, you need to stick out your arm and step into the street about a meter or two. If you don’t respond when he honks his horn from half a block away, he will just drive right on past.
No Courtesy on the Road: In Korea, there is no such thing as the right-of-way. Who ever is bigger, faster or in front owns the lane. Don’t sit at the corner with your blinker flashing, waiting for someone to kindly let you in because it won’t happen! You have to force your way in or the people behind you will pull out and around you and you will be stuck for hours.
Blocking Your Car In: In Korea, space is limited, so people park wherever they can; on the sidewalk, in store doorways and even blocking other cars in. People always leave their cell phone number on their dashboard, and a simple phone call gets them to come and move their vehicle. But don’t be surprised if you find they left their car in neutral and you have to push it to get out.
Crazy Motorcycles: There is only one rule about driving a motorcycle in Korea; there are no rules! They go anywhere they want, whenever they want. They go through red lights, they weave in and out of cars at busy intersections and they drive down the sidewalk when all else fails. Listen for their horn beeping and get out of the way, because no place is safe.
Getting Sardined on the Subway: Just when you think that no more people can fit into the subway car, Koreans are just getting started. They will literally put their heads down and take a running start to ram their way onto a loaded train. If you are unlucky enough to be standing by the door of a fully-loaded train when it arrives at a busy transfer point, do not be surprised when you are literally carried along by a mass of bodies and pinned against the backdoor so strongly that your feet are not even touching the ground and you can’t so much as twitch a finger.
Spitting Into Ashtrays: In order to stop butts from smoking and to prevent ashes from blowing over the table, smokers will often spit a large gob of saliva into an ashtray or paper cup. It is quite unsightly, but it works!
Public Urination: Some Koreans don’t seem to be very shy at all about this natural bodily function. Many men’s and lady’s bathrooms in older areas are just one bathroom with different stalls designated for each gender. And don’t be surprised to see someone peeing behind a car because they were too lazy to walk all the way to the toilet, or women holding a young child over a sewer grate to relieve themselves.
As many foreigners are shocked when they first see many these different public behaviors in Korea, likewise, Koreans are very often shocked or offended by some of the things foreigners do or say in public. The following is a list of things that foreigners in Korea should avoid doing in a public area if they can help it:
Making Loud Noises: This includes talking loudly or shouting, laughing, whistling, and anything else that might disturb someone else. Koreans are normally very quiet in public places so as not to offend anyone.
Body Odor: Koreans take pride in bodily cleanliness and are easily turned off by body odor.
Public Shows of Affection: Most Koreans, especially older people, are very conservative and frown upon any show of public affection between boys and girls. This includes kissing, touching each other on the face and even holding hands! Quite surprisingly though, public shows of affection between friends of the same gender are very common, and it is not odd in the least to see two men or two women sitting side-by-side, walking arm-in-arm, or even holding hands!
Spiking Chopsticks in Your Rice: This means that the bowl of rice is reserved for the dead, and is commonly seen in ancestral ceremonies. If you want to switch to your spoon, lay the chopsticks along the top of the bowl.
Bending Over in Class: While this is not frowned upon, you might be the unpleasant recipient of what is known in Korean language as a dong-chib, a favorite practical joke of school-age children. It is performed by clasping the hands together and forming the first and second fingers on each hand into a straight point and poking them right where the sun don’t shine!