“Koreans are so much more RUDE than Westerners!”
Let’s start at the beginning: Koreans are no more rude to expats than they would be to each other. It’s just like Americans are no more rude to tourists than they are to each other. Stop thinking it’s only part of the world that deals with these problems!
It’s a different culture, so something that seems very rude to you could easily be commonplace here. Things that most Western cultures would consider rude but are common here include:
Chewing with your mouth open
Being raised in the US, I can easily say without a doubt I was trained to always try to keep my mouth closed when eating my food. That’s not always the case in Korea. There are plenty of Koreans who eat with their mouth open and plenty who keep it closed. It’s a personal preference! I believe it may also tie into #2’s reasoning as well (to show that they’re enjoying their meal). Also keep in mind that for as long as Koreans have existed, meals were typically communal and shared between many people. This also means that it’s typical to find Koreans talking with food in their mouth.
Slurping your drink/soup/noodles
This is one of the major pet peeves a lot of expats have before coming to Korea because it’s not very common to find this habit in the West. It’s not considered rude to slurp in Korea so I suggest getting used to it (because you may find yourself doing it from time to time)! Just be ready; Koreans slurp anything and everything if they put their mind to it. It derives from the mindset that if you are enjoying your meal, instead of thanking the establishment afterwards (Western culture), let them hear that you’re enjoying your meal (Eastern culture): 맛있게 먹는다 “eating deliciously”. One of my coworkers also told me that slurping also helps cool down food as you’re eating it right out of a boiling pot. That way your time at the restaurant is spent eating more than waiting for the food to cool off. It helps with table turnover and helps you save time during your lunch hour.
Not holding the door for the person close behind you
More than once I’ve walked behind someone through a doorway thinking they’d push it out a little and been hit in the face with the full weight of the door swinging back to me. It definitely isn’t part of the common culture to hold doors open for the person behind you in Korea. If you’re carrying a lot of things, someone may be nice and help you with the door but be prepared to use your back instead. From my research it seems that it’s not common to hold doors open for anyone in Korea because it’s not common in general to make contact with strangers. They won’t say ‘Hi’ to you on the elevator if you’re the only two, they won’t say ‘Bless you’ if you sneeze, and they definitely won’t say ‘Sorry’ after pushing you on the subway.
Not covering your cough/sneeze
In a sort of ironic twist, Koreans don’t usually cover their sneezes, coughs, burps, etc. yet wear masks when they have a respiratory infection or to prevent the inhalation of fine dust. This is evidence that the hygiene expectations in Korea are pretty relaxed when it comes to some aspects. You’ll find that once flu season begins in Korea, plenty of your students or coworkers will show up sick, with their face masks on. Some will even need to be quarantined at home. That’s right, quarantined because of their flu. (Fun Fact: There’s also 2 different kinds of the ‘common flu’ if you didn’t know that!)
I have not found this issue to be that disturbing in my day-to-day routines but I do know some fellow expats who don’t like this at all. In my eyes, they’re staring at something different and I equate it to how celebrities feel or pieces of art that are timeless. Some expats, you’ll find, view being stared at as completely humiliating and want to crawl within themselves because they’ve tried their best to learn Korean culture to not be rude to people, yet they are unable to change how they look. I don’t think they’re staring because they have malicious thoughts. They’re likely staring because you obviously look different than 99.8% of people they interact with on a daily basis their whole life, you’re likely speaking a language they don’t understand (or do – be careful), you likely have double-eyelids that make your eyes naturally ‘huge’, an eye color that isn’t brown (mine are green for example), a cute nose, cute hands, a perfect natural hair color, or a complexion they find absolutely mesmerizing. Koreans care a lot about their appearance and if they’re staring at you, they may easily be taking note of how you look naturally. Here are some of my experiences with being stared at:
- An older woman (아줌마; ajumma) was staring at me at a bus stop. I originally thought it was because I was speaking English with my friend who is Chinese-American (she gets mistaken for Korean a lot). She eventually grabbed my hand and started stroking it telling me how beautiful my skin was.
- The Principal at my school would stare at me at lunch a lot. I was always nervous that I was wearing something inappropriate or eating disrespectfully, there were days I pushed back going to lunch as late as possible so I wouldn’t have to be stared at. At a teacher’s dinner, he came to my table and through my coworkers translating, he went on and on about how beautiful he found me and liked the color of my eyes. (I believe his original statement was ‘Sydney……..beautiful.’ before asking his Korean to be translated so he could get his message across).
If there’s something I tell anyone relatively soon after being introduced is that I’m not a touchy person. “Please don’t touch me” is probably in my Top 5 constant inner dialogue conversations. Thankfully, Korea’s culture also doesn’t call for a lot of touching people because they tend to bow when greeting and departing. At times you’ll find Korean girls (even boys) holding hands if they’re super close. But if you’re standing in the subway it is very common you’ll be nudged or pushed by an older Korean as they make their way to an open chair or the exit. In truth, you can and will be nudged or pushed anywhere. When you’re standing out of the main walkway, when you’re standing in a line, or when you’re the closest to the merchandise you’re looking at. I’d say the majority at fault in these situations are older Koreans. However, we can’t be mad and full of spite because Korea is an elders-first society and that’s just how it’s always been. Once you reach a certain age in Korea, I’d say you start using a lot of free passes you’ve been collecting up over the course of your life. So if you’re like me and don’t like being touched by strangers, learn the best corners to stand in on the subway or grit your teeth and get over it.
A lot of check out queues in Korea are non-existent. It’ll be a red line on the ground with some warn out foot print examples of where we should have lined up. It’s definitely first come, most aggressive served first. The most common place to run into this situation is again, public transportation. Subways and buses for sure but even airports if you find yourself flying in or out of Korea. I’m typically fine with this because yet again, it’s the older Korean generation that’s at fault for this. If someone cutting me causes me to miss my subway or bus, I’d say 95% of the time I’m OK with catching the next one because I allot myself plenty of time to get between destinations. If it’s in the 5% of time when I’m running behind, I’m usually floored at how quickly it happens.
Usually within the first 5 minutes of conversation with a new person in the US, you’re asking the accepted questions of: how are you, where are you from, what’s your job, and so on. Within the first 5 minutes of meeting a new Korean person, don’t be surprised if they’re asking you how old you are. I don’t get why Westerners find this to be rude! We eventually find out how old everyone is that we’re talking to anyways! But it’s on the list because it is a common complaint expats have in Korea. The reason Koreans are asking for your age is purely because there are different levels of honorifics when talking to someone in the Korean language and they’re trying to find out how old you are so if they should be talking to you casually or formally. That’s it! They’re trying to show you respect but you find it rude and become petty about revealing which year you joined the world population count? Grow up. They’re not asking for your bank account information or the last time you went to the lady doctor. If you can’t handle revealing your age, I suggest learning how to counter revealing that information to anyone.
So in conclusion, this has just been some of the top things Koreans do that would be considered rude in Western countries. These situations are revolved around my own experiences in South Korea and in no way reflect every expats experiences here. So in my opinion: