How to avoid cultural mistakes in Korea

Updated : 2014-05-22 17:48

How to avoid cultural mistakes in Korea

Joel Lee
A post titled “20 Cultural Mistakes to Avoid in Korea” on culture andtravel website Seoulistic. com has generated much chatter for itssarcastic take on aspects of Korean cultural behavior that foreignersregard as odd. 
The author, Ken Lee, is a London-born teacher currently living inGwangju who is carving out a presence in the blogosphere.
Some of Lee’s observations could use a 21st century update; no, mostKoreans will not always expect you to share your food with them. Andit’s rare to see a woman scolded for dressing too sexily these days.
To be fair, Lee does provide some tips that would allow foreigners toconvey an impression they are appreciative of the local culture,although in many cases they might overdo it.
1 on Lee’s list to avoid is “sitting on elderly seats in subways. ” If allseats on a subway are taken except those at the far end that arereserved for the elderly, should you go and take it?
Not unless you want a “big scolding from an elderly person,” Lee says,recalling how he witnessed a young woman who sat on a senior’s seatgetting an earful from an old man until she finally stood up and left.
A great deal of Lee’s advice is related to Korean table manners. No. 11 on his list, for example, is a child “not setting up utensils” on the table.
Korean parents teach their children dining etiquette from a very youngage, Lee observes. This includes setting up chopsticks, spoons, bowls,saucers and napkins and pouring water in every glass.
Although Koreans don’t expect foreigners to respect all of thesecustoms, knowing them is yet “another chance to make a goodimpression as well as to become more culturally enriched,” Lee claims.
At the dinner table, children should neither eat nor leave before theirelders, Lee cautions in Nos. 9 and 12. They must eat at a similar paceas the others and wait until everybody is finished before leaving thetable.
2 on Lee’s no-no list is “sticking your chopsticks in your rice. ” “Intraditional Asian culture, people usually stick ‘incense sticks’ upright ina bowl of sand at funerals as part of ancestor worship and it is believedto be food for the spirits. Sticking your chopsticks in a bowl of ricereminds people of that,” Lee says.
Even though the practice seems like ancient superstition, Lee advicesavoiding it because it is like “trying to say your friends at the table arealready dead.”
When it comes to food, Koreans often share with each other out of amoral belief, more specifically, the concept of “jeong,” which Leedescribes as “a special kind of love between people and society. ” Ifyou don’t share, you will be seen as greedy, with little or no “jeong,” hewarns in No. 14.
While blowing one’s nose in public is acceptable in the West, Leeadvises to avoid it in Korea, especially on the dinner table, at all costs,No. 6.
Lee also provides advice on the art of drinking soju, Korea’s famousdistilled beverage, in Nos. 3 and 4.
If you are offered a shot of soju or beer by a Korean older than you,you should take it as a “sort of ritual of respect and friendship,” Leesays. Even if you don’t intend to drink the alcoholic beverages, youshould still “drink along” with water or other options. “Rather than thebeverage itself, the ritual is seen as most important.”
Lee tells readers that refusing the shot can be “very offending toKoreans as it may look as though you don’t want to be their friend!”
Also when drinking with an elderly person, make sure to turn your headsideways from the person, Lee adds. Turning the head is a sign ofrespect to a person who has seniority over you.
5 on the list is “don’t write names in red ink. ” As another Koreansuperstition, Lee warns that writing a name in red means that theperson “will die soon or you want (him or her) to die.”
He explains, “This is because a long time ago the names of thedeceased were written in red on registers, gravestones and plaques toward off evil spirits.”
To women, Lee says in No. 18 not to wear clothing that exposes theirshoulder blades because such dressing is considered too “sexual” orrevealing, more so than miniskirts.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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