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12 Strange Things in South Korea

Hey, you heading to South Korea for your next vacation? Well, before you fill your belly with kimchi and then hit up a BTS concert, you’ll need to get acquainted with some South Korean “no-no’s” first. From slightly bizarre cultural faux pas to downright illegal bans, you’ll wanna know this!

1. Don’t tip at restaurants
Even if the service was incredible (and chances are it will be!), fight the urge to leave a tip, especially if you’re from a country where that’s the norm, like the US, for instance. Restaurant and café employees get paid really well, so tipping is seen as an incredibly rude gesture and a jab at their dignity.

2. Don’t play with chopsticks
There are several taboos that revolve around chopsticks in Korean culture. For example, if you mistakenly poke a hole in your food with chopsticks, then the host or chef might consider it an insult to their cooking skills. Holding the sticks vertically and sticking them vertically into rice are associated with death in South Korea because it resembles the incense sticks stuck in the sand at funerals. Who would have known?

3. Don’t leave food on your plate
Now, this one seems pretty logical for most Americans. I can still hear my mom threatening me to clean my plate or I won’t get dessert! But if you’re from, say, China, you’d be shocked to hear that you shouldn’t leave a little bit of food on your plate to show that you’re stuffed full of the host’s delicious meal. If you’re going to East Asia, don’t confuse Chinese and Korean table manners! When visiting someone’s home in South Korea, it’s impolite to refuse refreshments and even more offensive if you don’t finish what’s been served. In cafes and restaurants, the staff might also reprimand you for leaving food on your plate!

4. Stay away from the number 4
You might feel uneasy about the number 13, but a lot of countries in East Asia have the same attitude, only with the number 4. And that includes South Korea. Some combinations of fours are more feared than others, and numbers with multiple occurrences of the dreadful digit are even worse! This superstition comes down to the fact that in Korean, the word for the number sounds similar to the words for “decease” and “died.” (Well, now I can understand where they’re coming from!) You’ll even see this phobia in action when you walk into an elevator or public building. There, floor #4 and room #4 are almost always left out. You might see the 4th floor labeled “F” in an elevator instead. Apartment numbers containing multiple occurrences of 4 (such as 404) are avoided to the extent that the value of such a property can be negatively affected! Wow.

5. Don’t give gifts to your teacher
The age-old tradition of giving gifts to teachers for Teachers Day on May 15 was made illegal in South Korea back in September of 2016. The law prohibits teachers from receiving gifts from students or their parents. It does, however, allow paper carnations to be given by one student representative on behalf of the whole class or to teachers who don’t teach them anymore. So, if you’re a student in South Korea or you plan on taking some classes there, be warned! Breaking this law could mean a fine of up to $25,000 or even prison time! And if you do give or receive anything (be it a gift or food at the dinner table) always use both hands to show respect!

6. Don’t let your tattoos show
Many East Asian countries don’t like tattoos, and they’ve even managed to encode this into their laws. In South Korea, it’s illegal for tattoo artists to practice their work, and only licensed medical doctors are legally allowed to ink people. But a lot of locals will tell you that this law isn’t enforced too heavily, so you can get a tattoo pretty easily. Still, people with tattoos are treated differently, so you may wanna cover yours up if you plan a trip. That’s especially the case if you’re wanting to work or do business in Korea. It’s best to keep the tats under wraps!

7. Don’t wear plunging necklines
Most people in the West are pretty relaxed about clothing, especially Americans. “You do you, and wear what you want!” seems to be the general motto. But South Korea has a pretty interesting attitude when it comes to what’s considered too revealing or not. For instance, a plunging neckline is considered too open among Koreans and is not suitable for wearing in public. A lot of women there will stick to high necklines or wear layers under low-cut tops just to err on the side of caution. However, the attitude towards miniskirts is drastically different! They’re not only acceptable but are also considered really fashionable. You’ll see a lot of young women wearing very short skirts in South Korea, and everybody’s ok with it! Oh-kay.

8. Don’t make too much eye contact
I’m sure you, like a lot of people, have been taught that making eye contact with someone you’re speaking to is a sign of politeness. It shows that you’re listening attentively and are confident in what you’re saying when it’s your turn to speak. But in Korea, keeping eye contact is (pardon my pun) looked down upon because it’s considered too bold. It’s especially important to avoid looking directly into someone’s eyes if they’re older than you or they have a higher position (like your boss). And that’s because maintaining eye contact is your way of saying that you’re on the same level as someone. That’d be an extremely rude move in this case!

9. Be careful when taking photos in public
If you’re out and about in the streets of Seoul (or anywhere in the country for that matter), never take photographs with strangers in the frame. It might land you a fine or a night spent at the police station trying to prove that your intentions weren’t malevolent or crude. The strictest part of the law is that you can’t publish pictures of strangers (that includes on social media!), but, still, a lot of Koreans are just uncomfortable with people randomly snapping a pic of them without their knowing. And it makes sense, really, as far as privacy is concerned! You can always just be civilized and ask for permission before taking someone’s picture!

10. Don’t get into arguments, especially with elders
You might well be a rocket scientist, but in South Korea, you have to listen to your elders, especially if they’re rocket scientists, too. No, just kidding about that last part. . Societal hierarchy based on age is very rigid in this country, and you’ll probably be seen as unbelievably rude and disrespectful if you argue with someone who’s older than you. Even if they cut in line and you’ve been waiting there for who knows how long, just let it go if it’s an elder. That’s especially a good idea if you find yourself face-to-face with a mad “ajumma”! Translating to something like “auntie” in English (but not your relation), these older women in their instantly recognizable bright clothes have a particular reputation in Korea. Basically, getting into any argument with an ajumma can be a mistake you might end up regretting for the rest of your life! If she tells you up is down, don’t argue!

11. Don’t blow your nose in public
You know it’s polite to cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze, but take extra precaution when it comes to blowing your nose in Korea. Obviously, you’re not allowed to shoot any snot rockets on the street, no please don’t do that, but even just taking a tissue and wiping your nose in public is considered extremely rude and lowbrow, especially at the dinner table. And I’m sure while enjoying some spicy Korean cuisine, you’ll start getting a runny nose in no time! Just politely excuse yourself and go wipe or blow your nose in private.

12. Toilet talk isn’t taboo
Now, this might come as a surprise given all the other things on this list (especially that last one about blowing your nose!), but talking about your #1 and #2 is totally normal in Korea! And I’m not just talking about between family, friends, or partners – even colleagues will go into great detail about their bodily functions! It’s absolutely baffling for visitors! So, yeah, there’s no taboo whatsoever in discussing, uh, how everything is going down there. Is it regular, how’s the color, the consistency – everything! In Seoul, they’ve even built a park dedicated to all things “toilet”.

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