The very fact that you’re reading this blog post feels wrong, doesn’t it? I know how to make friends! Pfft… I don’t need to read a blog post to know how to do that…
Well, making friends in Korea is probably a little bit different than what you’re used to. There’s a complex, unwritten code of conduct here on the Korean Peninsula and it would be very useful for you to learn it.
Before I give you some suggestions on where you can make friends in Korea, I’ll share my struggle with the culture. Understanding Korean culture is much more than half the battle for making Korean friends. Hopefully, you’ll get as much from this uncomfortable experience as I have.
This is a guest post written by David from Global Seoul Mates. To learn more about him, you can read the ‘about the author’ near the end of this post!
Korean Friendship Culture
I started out in Korea as an English teacher in a small, rural town called Chungju. Chungju is almost 2 hours south of Seoul and I was the only Native English Teacher at one of the four high schools. I was excited to be in Korea, and ready to make the best of it. I was ready to make new friends, dive into the culture and food and I was ready to travel everywhere and anywhere to expand my horizons. Despite all this energy, my first impression was not encouraging.
For about 2 weeks, day in and day out, I was isolated in my office and my only interaction with my co-workers was with curt professionalism. Outside work, it was hard to meet people. Where would I meet them? Striking up conversations at cafes or pubs felt awkward. It wasn’t like Canada that way. People just didn’t seem friendly. They were polite, but not friendly. My enthusiasm took a dive and I really started to feel homesick.
Then, I was invited to my first school-wide staff dinner. Everyone would be there. All teachers, administrators, and even the principal. I was not looking forward to this dinner, seeing as every social encounter had been politely hollow. I went, and for the first 30 minutes, my expectations were confirmed. I sat there at the restaurant table, cross-legged and in pain, isolated once again. That was until the principal approached me.
He customarily gave me his soju glass, poured it with two hands, signalled me to do the same for him, then we downed the shots. I thought that was pretty cool. It seemed very traditional and there was something very respectful and honourable about it. Moments later, other senior teachers, and co-teachers and admin staff were approaching me and we were all downing shots together. By the end of the night, the principal and I were telling each other how much we respect each other.
After that, my experience at the school was incomparably better. From that day forward, the ice was broken. This wasn’t your standard ice. It was the glacier that divides Western and Korean cultures. There is a huge cultural divide between Korea and English speaking countries and it’s not easy to pass. But once passed, despite all of these differences, I’ve found over my 6 years in Korea, that we’re really not that different at all. Friendships in Korea are just as deep, rewarding and worthy as anywhere else in the world.
Lessons About Making Friends in Korea
There are a few lessons I’ve drawn from this struggle making friends in Korea.
Word of mouth is King in Korea.
Whether someone is looking for a private tutor, a new dentist or a friend, the first thing they will trust is a friend’s recommendation. Although it was customary, the principal publicly included me into the staff with the soju gesture and then everyone also accepted me.
Koreans are probably more intimidated by you then you are by them.
I later found out that a big reason the staff were so guarded towards me is that they were insecure about their English ability. I’m a native English speaker and a foreigner. Korea is relatively new to meeting foreigners. Just keep this in mind when you’re meeting your new Korean friends.
Alcohol is central to Korea’s social life.
A lot of nights out end up as drunken heart to heart conversation. This is just a way of life out here. People work and play hard in South Korea. It’s a fast culture and the quickest way to a heart to heart is through a bottle of soju. Some people could argue that it’s not healthy and they would be factually correct. But it seems to work well for Korea and its thriving culture.
There are a tonne of social customs which you should look out for.
There are social trip wires all over the place. But even if you trample all over cultural sensitivities, you’ll get a lot of free-passes because you’re not Korean. Everything from how you address people by age, to how you clink your beer glass, there are social customs that you ought to learn if you’re going to make lasting friendships in Korea. Let me correct that. You’ll just need to make an effort to learn these customs because you’ll never be expected to learn them all perfectly. That will be plenty good enough.
Where to make friends in Korea
A Hilokal meeting.
- hilokal.com : Full disclaimer* this is actually an events platform that I created. It started out with just a few local and expat friends about 4 years ago, but through word of mouth has grown very active in Seoul. There are meetups, language exchanges, Korean tutor lessons and Parties every day in Gangnam and Hongdae.
- meetup.com : This global platform for making friends is quite popular in Seoul. However, as meetups are easy to start but hard to maintain, I suggest contacting the organizer before attending to see if the event you plan to attend is still active.
- 소모임: Somoim is basically the meetup of Korea. It literally means ‘small meet up’. This app will be great for meeting Koreans, as there are virtually no foreigners on the platform. You’ll need some Korean skills to navigate the app.
- HelloTalk: This is a language exchange mobile app. They do their sincere best to prevent their app from becoming a dating app. They do this with some success.
- HaeBangChan (HBC) and Itaewon: This is the international hotspot of Korea. It feels like any other global neighbourhood except most of the signage is in Hanguel. This area was the designated foreigner spot because the American Army base was located here. However the army base has since relocated, leaving this area slightly more Korean than times passed. You’re likely to meet globalized Koreans in Itaewon who are familiar with English and English customs.
About the Author
This post was a guest post written by David from Global Seoul Mates.
Hello! I’m David and I’ve been in Korea for 6 years. I’m originally from Canada but I plan to be in Seoul for the foreseeable future. I co-founded the event cafe and pub chain called GSM Terrace and the event platform hilokal.com with my Korean business partner. I’m often at the events we host, so if you see me there please stop by and say hello!