More people than ever are learning Korean. South Korea as a destination and the huge Korean pop culture influence across the globe – thanks to K-Pop bands like BTS and award-winning films like Parasite – have made Korean language arguably the coolest language to learn right now. The end result: time in South Korea is high on people’s bucket lists. And it’s inspiring them to learn Korean.
When learning any language… You need to know how to use it within the culture it’s spoken in. Remember: Language and culture are two peas in a pod. So to really smash this language learning thing, you’ll need some information on Korean language culture. That guides you on when and how to verbal language AND body language.
When learning Korean, there are a handful of cultural traditions to bear in mind. Did you know it’s considered rude to talk on trains, especially on the phone.
Here are the key things to know about Korean culture, do’s and don’ts and cultural etiquette tips to help you speak Korean brilliantly:
Don’t be shy… and try to be polite!
Respect is a huge part of Korean culture and tradition:
How you interact with someone – both verbally and physically – depends on 3 things:
- The person’s age (always respect your elders!)
- Their social status (e.g. your teacher or boss hold superior status)
- How well you know them: (Are they a close friend? Or someone you’ve just met?) You can use more casual language with closer friends.
There are casual and polite forms of language. For example, when thinking of how to say hello in Korean and other greetings: you can either use:
Annyeong (안녕) – (casual version): used among close friends and people the same age
Annyeonghaseyo (안녕하세요) – (polite version): used to greet strangers and people older than you, or both.
Here’s how it sounds from a native speaker:
To show respect for the culture – always try to be polite. It’s better to be safe than sorry and end up offending someone! Korean locals are understanding of foreigners who maybe don’t know these rules – but having a few polite phrases in your back pocket will go a long way. P.S. Our app’s Korean course will teach you the essentials. 👋
Korean drinking culture
Drinking brings people together in Korea.
‘Let’s go for a drink’ 술 마시러 가자 (casual)
The youngest person will pour people’s drinks – pouring the elders’ drinks first and using both hands to pour. Remember: you must hold your drink with two hands to receive. If you pour, remember to fill everyone’s cup before your own. Refusing a drink is almost considered rude in Korea… so if you want to slow down: leave your drink half full. A clear spirit called soju (소주) is Korea’s national drink made from rice and potatoes, it’s about 20% ABV and consumed in shots!
Top Korean drinking etiquette tip: It is bad etiquette to pour your own drink.
Korean food culture
Don’t be afraid to share food when out with friends – it’s the sign of friendship and togetherness. Other things to know about Korean food etiquette: in contrast to Western cultures, shouting at the waiter is not rude. In fact – it’s almost encouraged. There’s also a button to press for waiters' attention in some restaurants. Top tip for Korean chopstick etiquette: NEVER leave your chopsticks vertically in your bowl as it’s associated with death. Oh, and you don’t have to tip (so no pressure!).
Korean business etiquette
If you’re learning Korean for work purposes – you need to take a moment to understand Korean corporate culture. Korean clients or even land a job at an amazing Korean company like Samsung or LG? Remember these essentials:
- Always be on time (lateness is considered especially rude).
- The senior workers are introduced first.
- Korean handshake etiquette: Shake with both hands to show respect, and bow slightly to show respect to elders.
- Never refuse food or drink when dining with clients or colleagues.
- Sneezing is considered rude. Try to excuse yourself or sneeze quietly and apologise immediately.
Korean business card etiquette:
- Give and receive business cards with both hands to show respect
- Do not put them in your pocket in front of the giver
- Put them on a surface face-up or in a protective holder
- Stand up when receiving cards, and study them carefully!
Korean dating culture
Korea has a unique dating culture. Couples often wear the same outfits (yes really) and exchange ‘couple rings’ (커플링) after 100 days together. Also: it’s common practice to ask someone to be your boyfriend or girlfriend after just 3 or 4 dates… so if you have feelings for someone… don’t hold back! For more on this: check out our post on how to say I love you in Korean and express your feelings for someone in Korean.
Need some advice on how to express your inner romantic? Here’s how to say: “I have a crush on someone”. (나 혼자 짝사랑 중이야)
Korean pop culture
Korea’s popular culture like K-Pop bands BTS, Korean dramas and Korean films are well known in and outside Korea. Looking to make conversations with locals? Learn Korean from some BTS songs or watch the film Parasite for conversation topics with locals.
Interesting Korean culture facts
- You must remove your shoes and hat when entering a home.
- Korean restaurant etiquette: Slurping sounds when eating are not considered rude in Korea – in fact it shows you think the food is delicious!
Well done! With these essential must-knows about Korean etiquette and language culture - you’re now ready to share amazing conversations with Korean locals and impress them with your seamless blending into their culture.
Why learn Korean with Memrise?
But before you touch down in South Korea… check out The Memrise app’s Korean courses to learn some key words and phrases to keep in your back pocket. These will prepare you with language to speak in likely situations you’ll find yourself in – in South Korea.
Our app pushes you to immerse yourself in Korean language. At any time and from any place. (Even eating ice cream in your pyjamas… if you want). You can learn on-the-go (on your way to work?), watch and listen to videos of native Korean speakers, and practice on your own terms. It’s that easy.
So… ready to learn Korean? Join 50 million others in learning a language with us by clicking below.