When visiting a country for the first time, it’s common to experience culture shock. No matter how well travelled we are, every country is a bit different and sometimes vastly so. Depending on where you are visiting from, Korea might have many cultural similarities. However, for many (me included!), visiting Korea for the first time was an eye-opening experience showing just how different cultures can be!
For example, it’s all too easy to forget that South Korea is actively at war. However, while it’s easy to overlook as a tourist, there’s no denying the war has profoundly impacted not only Korean culture but also society. Before visiting Korea, I could never have imagined just how much of an impact this has had on the country as a whole. However, after living here, it’s something you can’t forget.
Even after living in Korea for over six years, I sometimes struggle with cultural differences. In this article, I list what I believe to be ten of the most important Korean culture facts to know before visiting Korea. If you know these points, I believe it’s much easier to become familiar and comfortable with this very special culture.
Before diving in, I want to note that I focused on overarching elements of contemporary Korean culture in this post. While many themes are quite broad, they are important to be aware of. There are many smaller cultural differences too, but to list them all would take me months. With that said, let’s get started!
Everything is a Cafe
Have you ever heard of a goo cafe? What about a meerkat cafe? A jewellery cafe? No? Well, you will find all these cafes and more in South Korea! In fact, cafes are such an exciting part of Korean culture that I dedicated a whole post to the unique cafe culture in Korea.
I highly recommend reading that article to explain why this cafe culture has evolved entirely. However, to quickly summarise, after the Korean War, as coffee became more accessible, cafes quickly became places to discuss business and socialise.
Over time, cafes continued to gain popularity, and now Seoul has the most cafes per capita in the world. This is mainly on the back of younger Koreans who often live with their family until they get married. This is to say; many Koreans will live with their parents until they are in their late 20s or later.
This means it’s often hard to find privacy. Unless you have your own apartment, it’s not common to invite friends or significant others over, as there will likely be parents or other family members present.
As such, the youth and young adults of the country sought places they could enjoy with more privacy. Since cafes were already the hottest places to meet and socialise, it makes sense that younger people began to flock to them.
Over time, more and more variations of cafes began to appear. There are room cafes, which individuals or friends can hire for some privacy, there are animal cafes, where friends can go to enjoy some time with animals that they perhaps can’t have at home, and there are flower cafes which are ideal for dates!
But why remain a ‘cafe’? Although I can’t be sure, I believe it’s for two reasons; firstly, cafes are trendy, and Korea loves trends! Secondly, drinks offer a convenient form of payment. Rather than paying per hour, it’s far easier to sell a coffee for around 10,000KRW and consider that the entry fee.
If you want to try out the Korean cafe culture for yourself, I recommend starting with board game cafes. These cafes have every board game you can imagine, and you can take your family and friends. Order a coffee, hot chocolate, or juice, and enjoy some time plotting how to bankrupt your friends in Monopoly!
Korea Is Still at War
Reading this, I can imagine you thinking, ‘well… duh! I know that’. It’s not exactly an uncommon fact to know! However, while most people realise South Korea is still at war with its northern counterpart, it’s also important to consider its implications for Korean Culture and society.
Korean men are still required to complete a military service period of around 18 months in their 20s. While this period has been gradually shortening, it’s still a significant chunk of time to spend training. This period is even more impactful because many men will take it in the middle of their university life, meaning they will complete two years of uni before departing for military service. When they return, they still have two more years of uni to complete.
There’s also a very good chance you will see more examples of the ongoing war while you’re in Korea. Whether that’s men on their days off from the military returning to the base in uniform, seeing military trucks driving down the street, or seeing a train full of tanks (which I noticed yesterday!), you will see elements of the war.
However, the DMZ is the most physical manifestation most travellers will see of the war. A popular tourist attraction, the DMZ is the demilitarised zone that exists between North and South Korea. Although I initially thought the DMZ was an over-rated tourist attraction, I now recommend it to everyone.
It’s an eerie place to visit, and there is no location I’ve visited that feels quite the same. Furthermore, it’s perhaps the most important destination you can visit in Korea as it represents the geographical, cultural, and societal divide between the two Koreas, which were previously one.
While the ongoing war has many political implications, I do not want to discuss these as that would require an entire article dedicated to the topic. Needless to say, even without the political implications, you will quickly notice how much of an impact the Korean War and the ongoing divide have had on South Korean culture and society.
Video Games Are a Big Part of Society
Although video games are gradually becoming more accepted globally, no country places them front and centre like South Korea. Even if you’re not a gamer, you’ll quickly notice how much of a cultural impact computer games have had in the country.
A few years ago, I published an article about Starcraft 2 and my experiences visiting the studio to watch the grand finals of GSL (Global Starcraft League) live in Gangnam. It was a feeling unlike anything else – imagine a final for a sports game but for a video game. There were massive crowds, cameras everywhere, crowd cameras, and a massive celebration for the winner.
There’s no other country where you can quickly go and watch your favourite game live during the week. Depending on the importance of the event, you may find yourself anywhere from a small studio to a full-scale arena – it all depends on the popularity of the game and the event in question.
However, video games have a much more profound impact on South Korea. All over the country, especially in Seoul, you will see hundreds if not thousands of ‘PC bangs’. The direct translation of this is ‘PC room’, but we more often know them as PC cafes. However, whatever experiences you have with PC cafes, forget them! Korea takes PC bangs to a new level.
You’ll find yourself paying 1000-2000 KRW per hour to play games alongside hundreds of other players. The computers are all top-specced and ready for whatever game you can throw at them. The best part? You can even order food straight to your desk. Yes, you heard that right! You can play games while eating delicious food.
Games aren’t just for the younger generations, either. As soon as you set foot on the Seoul Metro, you will notice people of all ages playing games on their phones or, sometimes, Nintendo Switches or other portable consoles. Games are not only more accessible in Korea, but they are more accepted.
Throughout my university life in Seoul, one of the easiest ways to initially relate to people was through games. Even people who don’t play games regularly or seriously have played famous games such as League of Legends before. If you enjoy games, it’s a great conversation starter and a way to get to know someone.
Ppali Ppali (Rush Rush!)
Korea is a country where time is of the essence. On workdays (and even during the weekends), you will notice that people are generally in a rush. In Korean, ppali means ‘rush’ or ‘hurry’, and you may have heard the term ppali ppali which refers to a fast-paced culture where everything moves quickly.
This is best exemplified by the thousands of delivery drivers constantly navigating the streets of Korean cities in a rush to deliver food to customers as soon as possible. However, you’ll also notice it with KTX (Korean inter-city trains), which usually arrive on the minute and don’t stop for more than a few minutes to allow passengers to board.
Perhaps less obvious, but something that you quickly realise after living in Korea for a few years is that stores shut down and move out, only to be replaced by new stores all within the span of a few days. This might sound like an exaggeration, but restaurants will be completely replaced within a workweek!
This fast-paced lifestyle can also be witnessed in other aspects of Korean culture. If you’ve used public transport in Seoul during rush hour, you’ll know exactly what I mean! During peak times, there is always a rush to board trains or buses, and it’s often preferred to cram into a carriage than wait a few minutes for the next train.
Of course, this brings both positives and negatives. I love the fast-paced culture of South Korea because I can do everything so efficiently. If I order something online, it will usually be delivered within 24 hours. If I want to move apartments, I can do that within a day!
It’s amazing how productive you can be in a society that values speed. However, it is also stressful and, at times, too much. I need to leave Seoul for a few weeks every year to escape the constant rush and refresh myself.
As a tourist visiting Korea, I don’t think you can go wrong experiencing this aspect of contemporary Korean culture. However, if you plan on moving to a large city in Korea, I recommend visiting before diving in. The lifestyle may be perfect for you, but there’s also a chance it won’t click, and it’s better to know this before moving your life over.
Different Holidays are Celebrated
When visiting a new country, it’s expected that different holidays are celebrated and even that similar holidays may be celebrated differently. However, the holidays in Korea surprised me because despite the most prominent religion being Christianity, Christmas and Easter are only minor holidays in the country. For example, many workers are still expected to work on the 25th!
The two biggest holidays of the year in South Korea are Seollal (Korean New Year) and Chuseok (Autumn Harvest Festival, often called Korean Thanksgiving). These occur in January/February and September/October and always involve three days off. However, these three days are always joined to a weekend, meaning the Seollal and Chuseok period is five days in total.
During these holidays, most Koreans visit their oldest living family member’s home (typically parents or grandparents) and spend a few days there. This means that if you’re visiting during one of these holidays, you can expect to find most stores and attractions closed. On the other hand, nearly everything will remain open during Christmas and Easter.
Other big holidays in Korea include Independence Day (March 1st), Children’s Day (May 5th), Buddha’s Birthday (May 27th), Memorial Day (June 6th), National Liberation Day (August 15th), and National Foundation Day (October 3rd). However, you can still visit most stores and attractions on these holidays.
If you do happen to visit Korea during either Seollal or Chuseok, don’t be surprised to find many places around Seoul closed. With that said, for the attractions that remain open, this can be the perfect time to visit them and avoid the large crowds! For more information on what remains open during these periods, check out my post on what to do during Seollal and Chuseok.
Korea is not a Morning Country
There is a reason Korea is often referred to as the Land of the Morning Calm. Let’s say I can’t think of a more fitting name. Especially on a Sunday morning, you will find Seoul nearly abandoned – Really! It’s like everyone agrees to stay inside!
Of course, on weekdays, the situation is very different. Since students must get up early to attend school and workers need to be at their jobs at eight or nine, this calm and tranquillity can only be found on weekends and public holidays.
As you may have already guessed, Korea, especially the larger cities such as Seoul and Busan, is very might night-life focused. Cafes will often be open until 10 or 11 pm, while restaurants and bars can open as late as 4 am. On the other hand, it’s not uncommon for cafes and restaurants to only open at 11 am.
Although it’s always possible to find food and drink options before noon, don’t expect them to be as varied as they are in the afternoon and later. This is especially true on Saturday and Sunday mornings when you can expect many cafes and restaurants to be closed until the early or mid-afternoon.
For this reason, I highly recommend visiting the attractions that are open on a Saturday or Sunday morning where possible. Gyeongbokgung Palace is far less crowded these mornings, and it’s a great opportunity to explore the palace with more freedom.
Namsan Tower, Lotte World Mall, Hongdae, and a range of other attractions are far less busy before noon on Sunday and are also worth visiting at these times if possible. However, for locations such as Hongdae and Myeongdong, many stores will likely not open until a bit later.
Conversely, expect areas to be packed late afternoon and early evening. Locations such as Ikseondong, Myeongdong, and Hongdae reach peak popularity from 4 pm – 8 pm, and you will need to battle crowds at times if you visit these locations during these hours.
Kakao Is the Center of the Digital World
If you are planning to visit South Korea, you’re likely already aware of the most famous messaging app in the country – KakaoTalk. However, you might not be aware that Kakao is much more than just a messaging application for citizens. In fact, it’s fair to say that Kakao is the centre of the digital world in Korea.
If I’m heading to dinner with friends, I’ll first use KakaoBus (I personally don’t like the Kakao Metro app) to navigate to dinner. Once there, we’ll enjoy our meal before splitting the bill with KakaoPay. If we’re heading home late, after public transport has shut down, I’ll use KakaoTaxi to get a cab home.
This barely scratches the surface – you can order food and drinks using Kakao, send gifts, and some people even use KakaoBank! While you won’t need any of these services outside of perhaps KakaoTalk, KakaoBus/Metro and KakaoTaxi as a visitor, you’ll likely want to get KakaoPay and other services set up ASAP if you plan to stay more than a couple of months!
If you plan to stay connected during your trip to South Korea, I highly recommend downloading and setting up KakaoTalk before visiting. While the international versions of the application are limited mostly to messaging, they will be beyond useful during your stay.
If you plan to stay longer, change to the Korean App Store or Play Store and use the Korean version of the messenger. KakaoPay is an invaluable service, making splitting bills and paying people easier.
There’s No Need to Tip
Coming from a country where tipping is not the norm, this was not a big surprise for me. However, for some people, it is a surprise that tipping isn’t really done in Korea. In fact, in some cases, it’s not even accepted!
It is never expected that you will tip in South Korea, and I generally recommend against it because I’ve seen people get offended when they were offered tips in the past. While it’s a nice gesture to provide a tip, I recommend asking the chef, waiter, driver, or otherwise if they accept tips first.
They will often accept, but it’s common for Koreans to reject tips. Don’t push the matter if they do, as it can appear rude. Instead, enjoy the service and appreciate the fact that tips aren’t needed!
Drinking Is Not Just for Friends
Koreans consume the most alcohol in Asia on a per capita basis. If you’re ever out on the streets of Seoul or Busan after 8 pm, you’ll quickly realise just how prevalent drinking is. However, unlike many countries where drinking is ordinarily limited to friends, in Korea, you can easily find yourself drinking with your boss, professor, or even parents-in-law.
One of the most memorable experiences I had in Korea was during my first year in university when I drank with two students in my class and the professor. In New Zealand, a situation like this would never have happened, but it’s far from unusual in Korea. We had a great time and a truly unique experience.
It’s common for coworkers to drink together – even if the hierarchy is very different. While this can have some positives, such as bringing coworkers closer together, it’s also drawn a lot of criticism because these events often aren’t optional, and employees are expected to drink with their seniors.
For better or worse, drinking in Korea is a very different experience. Not only does drinking generally start earlier (by 8 pm, you will see people who are clearly drunk on the streets and in public transport), but it’s also much more accepted. In Korea, you can drink almost anywhere – on the streets, in a park, or even on the banks of the Han River.
Perhaps most importantly, alcohol is very accessible in South Korea. Alcohol tax is relatively low, so you can find bottles of soju for under $1.50. Other drinks, such as Makgeolli and beer, can also be found for less than $2.50 for a bottle/can!
Needless to say, if you want to enjoy nightlife, Seoul is one of the best places in the world to visit. There is always something going on, and it’s one of the few cities in the world where the phrase ‘the city never sleeps’ truly applies. However, if you are planning to move to Korea, remember that you will likely be expected to drink.
Koreans Usually Won’t Use First Names
Korean titles. Image from Lingodeer.
Korea has a very strict hierarchical structure, meaning names are rarely used unless you are very close to someone (and a similar age). Whether in the workplace, at school, at a convenience store, or in public, it’s often rude to address someone directly with their name.
To take it a step further, you must also remember which level of formality to use when addressing people in Korean. Usually, a semi-formal (generally with words ending in -yo) or formal (words ending in -nida) are the safest approaches. However, if you know someone well, dropping the formalities is okay.
As someone visiting Korea, it’s okay to make mistakes, and most people are forgiving. I’ve used the wrong levels of formality at times, and the vast majority of people will laugh it off. However, it is important to make an effort to address people using their proper titles and to adjust the formality with which you speak.
This might be very easy to pick up if you come from a country with a similar language structure. However, for me, it was a tough concept to get used to. I spoke only formally for my first couple of years in Korea because I was worried about offending someone! Even now, I tend to speak formally with my friends accidentally. However, it’s better to be formal than informal accidentally!
For this reason, I recommend picking up the basic phrases you will need in a few different levels of formality before visiting. Furthermore, it’s good to learn a few general phrases which can be used to address people – for example, sajangnim which translates to boss but can often be used to call the owner of a restaurant.