top of page

Korean Culture Shock: What to Expect and How to Cope

1. Introduction

1-1. Brief overview of Korean culture and history

1-2. Importance of understanding cultural differences for visitors and expats

2. Understanding Korean Culture

2-1. Key cultural values and beliefs

2-2. Traditional Korean customs and practices

2-3. Impact of Confucianism on Korean society

2-4. Role of family and social hierarchy in Korean culture

3. Common Culture Shocks for Visitors

3-1. Food and dining etiquette

3-2. Communication styles and language barriers

3-3. Transportation and transportation etiquette

3-3-1.Transportation Etiquette

3-3-2. Etiquette for Subway Seats:

4. Culture Shocks for Long-Term Expats

4-1. Housing and living arrangements

4-2. Employment and work culture

4-3. Education system and school life

4-4. Healthcare and medical care

4-5. Interactions with Korean locals and building relationships

Korean Culture Shock: What to Expect and How to Cope

Culture shock is a common experience when visiting a new country, and South Korea is no exception. South Korea has a unique blend of traditional and modern culture that can be quite overwhelming for visitors. The country has a strong emphasis on etiquette and respect for elders, which may be different from what people are used to in their own culture.

1. Introduction


1-1. Brief overview of Korean culture and history

The earliest evidence of human habitation in Korea dates back to the Palaeolithic Age, around 700,000 years ago. The first Korean kingdom, Gojoseon, was founded in 2333 BC.

The Three Kingdoms of Korea (57 BCE–668 CE) were Goguryeo, Baekje, and Silla. The Silla kingdom unified the peninsula in 668 CE, and the Unified Silla period lasted until 935 CE. The Goryeo dynasty (935–1392 CE) was founded by Wang Geon, and the Joseon dynasty (1392–1910 CE) was founded by Yi Seong-gye.

The Joseon dynasty lasted for over 500 years and was characterized by a strong Confucian influence. In 1910, Korea was annexed by Japan, and it remained under Japanese rule until 1945. After World War II, Korea was divided into two countries: North Korea and South Korea.

The Korean War (1950–1953) was fought between North Korea and South Korea, and it ended in a stalemate. The two countries have remained divided ever since.

1-2. Importance of understanding cultural differences for visitors and expats

Understanding Korean culture helps visitors and expats navigate social interactions with respect and avoid unintentionally offending locals. Korea has specific customs, etiquette, and social norms that may differ from those in other countries. By being aware of these differences, individuals can show respect for the local culture and avoid cultural misunderstandings.

Developing meaningful relationships with Koreans is easier when one understands and appreciates their cultural background. By demonstrating an understanding of Korean customs, traditions, and values, visitors and expats can establish stronger connections, foster trust, and create a more positive social network.

Cultural understanding facilitates the process of integration and adaptation into Korean society. By learning about Korean customs, language, and social norms, individuals can navigate daily life more effectively, participate in local activities, and feel more comfortable in their surroundings. This understanding promotes a smoother transition and enhances the overall experience of living in Korea.

For expats working in Korea, understanding the local business culture is vital for professional success. Korean work culture, hierarchy, communication styles, and business etiquette may differ significantly from those in other countries. By grasping these cultural nuances, expats can adapt their approach, build effective working relationships, and navigate the Korean business landscape more successfully.

Cultural understanding helps visitors and expats avoid stereotypes and prejudices about Korean culture. It allows individuals to see beyond superficial differences and gain a deeper appreciation for the complexities and diversity of Korean society. By understanding the cultural context, individuals can challenge their own assumptions and embrace a more nuanced perspective.

Understanding Korean culture opens doors to a wide range of cultural experiences, including traditional festivals, cuisine, art, music, and historical landmarks. By engaging with and appreciating Korean culture, visitors and expats can fully immerse themselves in the local traditions, enrich their experiences, and develop a deeper connection with the country.

Overall, understanding cultural differences in Korea is essential for respectful interactions, successful integration, and a more enriched experience. It allows visitors and expats to connect with locals, navigate daily life effectively, and embrace the unique aspects of Korean culture.

2. Understanding Korean Culture

Understanding Korean Culture

Understanding Korean culture involves exploring various aspects of its traditions, customs, values, and social norms.

2-1. Key cultural values and beliefs

Confucianism is a system of thought and behavior that originated in China and was later adopted by Korea. It emphasizes the importance of social order, respect for authority, and the cultivation of personal morality. Confucianism has had a profound influence on Korean culture and society, and its values can still be seen today.

Education is highly valued in Korea. Koreans believe that education is the key to success in life. The Korean education system is very competitive, and students are expected to work hard in school. The high value placed on education is reflected in the fact that Korea has one of the highest literacy rates in the world.

Koreans are known for their hard work and dedication. They are willing to work long hours and put in the effort to achieve their goals. The Korean work ethic is often cited as one of the reasons for the country's economic success.

Respect is an important value in Korean culture. Koreans are taught to respect their elders, their teachers, and their superiors. They are also taught to respect the law and the government. Respect is shown through actions such as bowing and using polite language.

Koreans value cooperation and teamwork. They believe that working together is the best way to achieve success. This value is reflected in the way that Koreans organize their businesses and their communities.

2-2. Traditional Korean customs and practices

It’s important to understand that Korean culture has a foundation of centuries of tradition. Cultural norms are hard to change. Although Western culture had a great influence on Korea in recent decades, the value of respect is deeply rooted in many traditions. Korean people are incredibly helpful, especially with older people. Showing respect is very important. This is even more prevalent in rural areas where traditional housing is still very popular. The Korean language has built-in formality relating to the social status that will never change. Due to this, Korean tradition will live on. Birthdays are also recognized differently in Korea. Koreans count themselves as being one-year-old at birth. This may confuse some Westerners. And it’s common to meet a Korean who was born in the same age as you but describe themselves as older.

2-3. Impact of Confucianism on Korean society

Confucianism has had a profound impact on Korean society. Some of the key Confucian values that have shaped Korean society include:

That society should be harmonious and that everyone should work together to achieve this. This value is reflected in the way that Koreans interact with each other, and it is also reflected in the way that Korean society is organized.

Education is seen as the key to success in life, and it is highly valued in Korean society. Koreans believe that education is the best way to improve oneself and to contribute to society.

Hard work is another key Confucian value that is still very strong in Korean society today. Koreans are known for their hard work and dedication, and they are often willing to work long hours to achieve their goals.

Respect for authority is the idea that people should respect those who are in positions of authority, such as parents, teachers, and government officials. This value is still very strong in Korean society today, and it is reflected in the way that Koreans interact with each other.

2-4. Role of family and social hierarchy in Korean culture

The family is the most important social unit in Korea. Koreans place a high value on family loyalty and respect for elders. The traditional Korean family is patriarchal, with the father as the head of the household. However, the role of women in Korean society has been changing in recent years, and women are now playing a more active role in the workforce and in society as a whole.

The family is seen as the foundation of society, and it is responsible for providing its members with love, support, and guidance. Children are expected to obey their parents and respect their elders. In return, parents are expected to provide their children with the resources they need to grow and succeed.

The family is also responsible for maintaining social order. Koreans believe that a strong family is essential for a strong society. They believe that families should be united and that members should support each other.

The social hierarchy is another important aspect of Korean culture. Koreans believe that everyone has a place in the social hierarchy, and that it is important to respect those who are above you. The social hierarchy is based on a number of factors, including age, gender, and social status.

Age is one of the most important factors in the social hierarchy. Koreans believe that older people are wiser and more experienced than younger people, and they are therefore entitled to more respect. Gender is also an important factor, with men being considered superior to women. Social status is also important, with people who have higher social status being entitled to more respect.

The social hierarchy is reflected in the way that Koreans interact with each other. Koreans are always careful to use the proper language and behavior when speaking to someone who is above them in the social hierarchy. They are also careful to avoid doing anything that might be considered disrespectful.

The social hierarchy can be a source of both pride and frustration for Koreans. On the one hand, Koreans are proud of their culture and their traditions. They believe that the social hierarchy is a key part of their culture, and they are proud to uphold it. On the other hand, some Koreans feel that the social hierarchy is unfair. They believe that it gives too much power to older people and men, and that it limits the opportunities for women and younger people. Despite the challenges, the social hierarchy remains an important part of Korean culture. It is a reflection of the values that Koreans hold dear, and it is a key part of the way that they interact with each other.

3. Common Culture Shocks for Visitors

Common Culture Shocks for Visitors

3-1. Food and dining etiquette

Korean food is a delicious and diverse cuisine that has been enjoyed for centuries. Korean dining etiquette is also unique and interesting, and it is important to know the basics before you sit down to a Korean meal.

Here are some of the most important things to know about Korean food and dining etiquette:

**Meals are typically served family-style.** This means that a variety of dishes are placed on the table, and everyone shares.

**The eldest person at the table is served first.** This is a sign of respect for elders.

**It is customary to use chopsticks to eat.** Chopsticks are held in the right hand, with the thumb and index finger on the top chopstick and the middle finger on the bottom chopstick.

**When eating rice, it is customary to hold the bowl with your left hand and bring it close to your mouth.** Do not put your chopsticks in the rice bowl.

**It is considered rude to leave food on your plate.** If you are full, simply leave a small amount of food on your plate as a sign of respect.

**When you are finished eating, place your chopsticks on the table in front of you.** Do not cross your chopsticks or stick them into the rice bowl.

**It is customary to say "잘 먹었습니다" (jal meogeosseumnida) after you finish eating.** This means "I ate well."

Korean food and dining etiquette can be a bit different from what you are used to, but it is a fun and interesting experience. By following these tips, you can enjoy a delicious and authentic Korean meal.

**Be prepared to eat a lot of rice.** Rice is the staple food in Korea, and it is served with almost every meal.

**Don't be afraid to try new things.** Korean food is full of delicious flavors, so don't be afraid to experiment.

**Be respectful of the people you are eating with.** Korean dining etiquette is based on respect for elders and others.

Korean food and dining etiquette is a unique and interesting experience, so enjoy it!

3-2. Communication styles and language barriers

Communication styles and language barriers in Korea can vary depending on the context and individuals involved.

Koreans often use indirect communication to convey their thoughts or opinions. They may express themselves subtly, relying on non-verbal cues or contextual hints. This indirectness can sometimes lead to misunderstandings for those unfamiliar with the Korean communication style. Non-verbal cues play a significant role in Korean communication. Facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice are used to convey meaning. Maintaining eye contact is considered respectful, while excessive gesturing or physical contact may be seen as inappropriate.

Korean is the official language of South Korea, and while English is taught in schools, proficiency levels can vary. In more rural or older generations, English proficiency may be limited. Therefore, language barriers can be a challenge for non-Korean speakers, especially outside major cities.

Professional translation and interpretation services are available in Korea, which can help bridge the language gap. It is advisable to hire a qualified translator or interpreter when engaging in important business or legal matters.

Learning some basic Korean phrases and expressions can go a long way in breaking down language barriers and demonstrating respect for the local culture. Simple greetings, thank you, and basic conversational phrases can be helpful in day-to-day interactions.

With the rise of technology and digital platforms, communication barriers have been somewhat reduced. Online translation tools, language learning apps, and instant messaging services can aid in overcoming language obstacles.

It's important to note that while these are general observations, individual communication styles may vary. Being aware of cultural norms and practices can help foster better communication and understanding when interacting with Koreans.

3-3. Transportation and transportation etiquette

Transportation in Korea is well-developed and reliable, offering various modes of transportation for both locals and visitors.

Public transportation is highly efficient in Korea, especially in major cities like Seoul and Busan. The subway (metro), buses, and taxis are the primary means of getting around.

The subway systems in Korea are extensive and cover most areas of the cities. They are known for their cleanliness, punctuality, and ease of use. Signs and announcements are typically available in both Korean and English.

Buses in Korea are another popular mode of transportation, providing coverage to areas not served by the subway. There are different types of buses, including city buses and intercity buses, each with designated routes and fares.

Taxis are widely available and easily hailed on the streets or found at taxi stands. Most taxi drivers in major cities can understand basic English, but it's helpful to have your destination written down in Korean or use a map application to communicate the address.

3-3-1.Transportation Etiquette

When waiting for a bus or train, it is customary to form a queue and wait for your turn. Cutting in line is generally frowned upon.

Priority seating is available on public transportation for elderly people, pregnant women, individuals with disabilities, and parents with young children. It is considered polite to offer these seats to those who need them.

Maintaining a moderate noise level is appreciated on public transportation. Loud conversations, music, or phone calls could disturb other passengers, so it's best to use headphones and keep the volume low.

When boarding or exiting a bus or train, it is common to allow passengers to disembark first before entering. It helps to create a smooth flow of traffic and prevents congestion.

When using public transportation, make sure to have the correct fare or a transit card (e.g., T-money card) ready for payment. If using a taxi, the fare is usually displayed on the meter, and tipping is not expected.

3-3-2. Etiquette for Subway Seats:

Similar to buses, priority seats are available for those in need. It is polite to offer these seats to individuals who are elderly, pregnant, or have disabilities.

Avoiding Occupying Multiple Seats is considered impolite to occupy multiple seats when the subway is crowded. Try to keep personal belongings on your lap or in designated storage areas.

Koreans value personal space, so it's important to avoid unnecessary physical contact with other passengers. Avoid leaning on or touching others unless necessary.

By following these transportation etiquette guidelines, you can have a smooth and respectful experience while traveling in Korea.

4. Culture Shocks for Long-Term Expats

Culture Shocks for Long-Term Expats

4-1. Housing and living arrangements

Long-term expats in Korea may experience some cultural shocks related to housing and living arrangements.

Housing in Korea, particularly in urban areas, is known for its relatively small size compared to Western standards. Apartments or houses may have limited space, especially in city centers. Expats accustomed to larger living spaces may need to adjust to more compact accommodations.

Traditional Korean housing often features underfloor heating called ondol. This system uses heated pipes beneath the floor to warm the living space. Expats might find it initially unfamiliar, but it is an efficient and widely used method in Korea.

Long-term housing contracts in Korea typically require a large lump-sum deposit called jeonse. This deposit is returned at the end of the lease period. Alternatively, monthly rent contracts (wolse) are also available, but they may require higher monthly payments. Expats should be prepared for these unique aspects of Korean housing contracts.

It is common to use the services of housing agents (real estate agents) when searching for housing in Korea. They assist with finding suitable accommodations and negotiating contracts. Expats may need to engage with these agents to navigate the housing market effectively.

Many expats in Korea live in apartment complexes known as "apartments" or "villas." These complexes often have shared facilities such as parks, playgrounds, and community spaces. Adjusting to the community living atmosphere and respecting the rules and norms of the apartment complex can be an aspect that may require adaptation.

Korea has a strict waste management system, and expats will need to familiarize themselves with the recycling guidelines and appropriate disposal methods. Separating recyclables, using designated bins, and following specific schedules for waste disposal are essential in maintaining proper waste management practices.

Korean housing can be dense, and noise levels may be higher compared to more suburban or rural areas. Apartments are often built close together, and it's important to be considerate of neighbors by keeping noise levels to a minimum, especially during late evening hours.

Korean housing complexes often have security measures in place, such as security guards and CCTV cameras. Entry to the buildings or apartment complexes may require key cards or codes. This focus on security may be different from what expats are accustomed to in their home countries.

Experiencing cultural shocks in housing and living arrangements is normal for long-term expats in any country. It's helpful to maintain an open mind, be adaptable, and embrace the unique aspects of Korean housing and living culture. Engaging with the local community and seeking support from other expats can also help ease the transition.

4-2. Employment and work culture

Long-term expats in Korea may encounter some cultural shocks when it comes to employment and work culture.

Korean work culture places a strong emphasis on hierarchy and respect for authority. The hierarchical structure is often strictly observed, and seniority is highly valued. Expats may need to adapt to the hierarchical relationships, show deference to senior colleagues, and follow the established chain of command.

Korea is known for its culture of long working hours. The standard workweek is typically 40 to 52 hours, but overtime work is common. Working late into the evening or on weekends is not uncommon, especially in certain industries or for managerial positions. Expats may need to adjust to the longer hours and work-life balance expectations.

Korean work culture emphasizes teamwork and collective efforts. Group harmony and cohesion are important, and decisions are often made through consensus. Expats may need to adapt to a collaborative work environment, actively participate in group discussions, and contribute to team goals.

Korean business etiquette has its own set of protocols. This includes exchanging business cards with both hands, addressing colleagues or superiors with appropriate titles, and observing proper dining and drinking etiquette during business meals. Expats may need to familiarize themselves with these customs to navigate business interactions effectively.

Building strong relationships with colleagues and superiors is crucial in Korean work culture. Socializing outside of work, such as after-work gatherings or company dinners (called "hweshik"), is common and can play a significant role in work dynamics. Expats may need to actively engage in social activities to foster good relationships and establish rapport with colleagues.

Korean communication styles may differ from what expats are accustomed to. Indirect communication and the use of non-verbal cues are common. There can be a preference for implicit communication, where understanding is expected without explicit instructions. Expats may need to pay attention to subtle cues, read between the lines, and adapt their communication style accordingly.

While work-life balance is increasingly recognized as important, achieving it can still be a challenge in Korean work culture. Expats may need to navigate expectations around working long hours and find strategies to ensure a healthy balance between work and personal life.

4-3. Education system and school life

Long-term expats in Korea may experience some cultural shocks when it comes to the education system and school life.

Korea's education system is known for its competitiveness. High academic achievement is highly valued, and students often face intense pressure to excel academically. The emphasis on exams and test scores can be a cultural shock for expats coming from education systems with a different focus.

and typically they have long school hours, often extending into the evening with after-school activities and study sessions known as "hagwon." The long hours can be demanding on students and may require adjustment for expats who are used to shorter school days.

Many Korean students attend private tutoring academies, called "hagwon," to supplement their regular school education. Hagwons offer specialized instruction in various subjects and can play a significant role in a student's education. Expats with children in the Korean education system may need to navigate the hagwon culture and consider its impact on their child's education.

The Korean education system traditionally places a strong emphasis on rote memorization and knowledge-based learning. Students often spend significant time memorizing facts and information. Expats may need to adapt to this learning style if they have children in Korean schools or if they are involved in the education sector.

Korean culture places high respect for teachers and authority figures in the education system. Students are expected to show respect to their teachers, and there is a hierarchical relationship between students and educators. Expats may need to navigate this dynamic and understand the expectations around respecting teachers and authority figures.

Uniforms are commonly worn by students in Korean schools. Each school has its own unique uniform design and dress code. Expats with children attending Korean schools may need to ensure compliance with uniform policies and prepare their children for the uniform culture.

Korean schools often have a strong emphasis on discipline and order. There are rules and regulations that students are expected to follow, and disciplinary measures can be strict. Expats may need to familiarize themselves with the school culture and ensure their children are aware of and adhere to school rules.

Korean parents are often highly involved in their children's education. They may participate in school activities, volunteer, and closely monitor their child's academic progress. Expats with children in Korean schools may need to navigate the expectations of parental involvement and find ways to engage with the school community.

4-4. Healthcare and medical care

Korea has a national health insurance system that provides coverage for its citizens and registered foreign residents. Expats may need to familiarize themselves with the enrollment process, coverage details, and co-payment requirements. The concept of national health insurance may be different from healthcare systems in their home countries.

and also has a well-developed healthcare infrastructure with modern facilities and advanced medical technology. Expats may find the healthcare system efficient and accessible, but the specific practices and procedures may vary from what they are familiar with.

Korea has both public and private healthcare facilities. Public hospitals are generally considered more affordable, while private hospitals often offer more specialized services and shorter wait times. Expats may need to navigate the choice between public and private healthcare providers based on their preferences and insurance coverage.

Communication can be a challenge for expats seeking medical care in Korea, as many healthcare providers may have limited English proficiency. It is advisable to have a basic understanding of Korean medical terms or have access to translation services to ensure effective communication with healthcare professionals.

In Korea, it is common to make appointments for medical consultations, including visits to general practitioners. Walk-in appointments may not be as prevalent, and expats may need to adjust to scheduling appointments in advance for non-emergency medical care.

Prescription medications in Korea may differ from those in expats' home countries. Expats may need to consult with healthcare professionals to ensure their prescribed medications are available in Korea. Additionally, familiarize themselves with the process of obtaining prescription medications, including any regulations or restrictions.

Traditional Korean medicine, known as "Hanbang," is still practiced in Korea alongside Western medicine. It incorporates herbal remedies, acupuncture, and other traditional healing methods. Expats may encounter Hanbang clinics or healthcare providers offering alternative treatments and may choose to explore these options based on personal preferences.

Korean culture may have different approaches and beliefs regarding health and wellness. For example, there may be an emphasis on preventive care, dietary practices, and traditional health practices. Expats may encounter different perspectives on certain health conditions and treatment approaches.

4-5. Interactions with Korean locals and building relationships

Korean culture places a strong emphasis on politeness and formalities in social interactions. Addressing others with appropriate honorifics and using formal language (known as "jondaetmal") is important, especially when interacting with older individuals or those in higher positions. Expats may need to learn and use appropriate honorifics to show respect and build positive relationships.

Trust is essential in Korean relationships, and it is often built over time through consistent interactions and shared experiences. Expats may need to invest time and effort into building trust and rapport with Korean locals, taking part in social activities, and demonstrating commitment to the relationship.

Language can be a significant challenge when interacting with Korean locals. While many Koreans may have some degree of English proficiency, there can still be communication barriers. Learning basic Korean phrases and expressions can help bridge this gap and show a genuine interest in connecting with locals.

Being culturally sensitive and respectful of Korean customs and traditions is crucial when building relationships with locals. Showing an understanding and appreciation for Korean culture, such as observing social norms, participating in local customs, and showing interest in Korean history and traditions, can contribute to positive interactions and relationship-building.

bottom of page