Korean Etiquette: An Overview

Etiquette is the code of social behavior that governs human interactions and rules how human behaves in the society.

Etiquette in Korea takes root in Korean Confucianism, the form of Confucianism which emerged and developed in Korea starting from the time of Goryeo Dynasty (918–1392). The dynasty which followed, the Joseon Dynasty (1392 – 1910), adopted Neo-Confucianism as the state ideology, the primary belief system among scholars and administrators. 

The etiquette in Korea is the code of conduct for many areas: introducing oneself, eating and drinking, giving gifts, respecting elders, visiting other people’s house, and so on.

One article will not be enough to cover them all, but I will try to pinpoint three Korean etiquettes I have perceived from K-Drama.

1. Introducing Oneself

Introducing oneself is the first step to human interactions. It also determines the first impression for all parties involved and the further course of the relationship.

One of the Confucianism values is to respect elders. When introducing oneself, one needs to be aware of his and the collocutor’s social status, be it someone who is older in terms of his age, or someone who has higher position at school/work/communal institution, or someone who is more experienced than the speaker himself.

This respect is shown through employing different types of speech level when introducing oneself.

When introducing oneself to someone who is older or has higher position or more experienced, one is obliged to employ jondaetmal, or the polite speech level. It uses honorifics and is shown by the various verb conjugations.

For example: introducing myself to a teacher.

Annyeonghasimnika, joneun Rijo imnida. (Hello, I am Rijo.)

On the other hand, when introducing oneself to someone who is about the same age or younger (like children), one can use the banmal, or the casual speech level. The verb conjugations will also differ.

For example: introducing myself to a new classmate, who is about the same age as me.

Annyeonghaseyo, naneun Rijoyeyo. (Hello, I am Rijo.)

The meaning conveyed in those two sentences is exactly the same, but those sentences use different verb conjugations depending on the speech level (polite or casual).

Annyeonghasimnika (jondaetmal)/
Annyeonghaseyo (banmal)

2. Giving Gifts

Gifts are given to celebrate special occasion like birthday, wedding, and holiday like Seollal (Korean New Year) and Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving Day). Giving gifts is also a form of communication. Therefore, like the oral communication, it heavily depends on who is receiving the gift and when.

Gifts for parents (and superiors at work) during the holidays usually include ribs, fruit, wine, and gift cards. This is shown by the K-Drama “Misaeng” (2014). Gifts for newlyweds range from money to household appliances (if someone is close to either the bride or the groom).

Gifts for Seollal (Korean New Year)
Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/koreanet

3. Visiting Other People’s House

Etiquette and manner are very important when someone is visiting other people’s house.

Korean traditional house consists of ondol, an underfloor heating system.

Ondol System
Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/koreanet

Back then, and even until now, Koreans sit on the floor using cushions and eat from a low table in order to utilize the heat. Consequently, the floor of a house must be kept clean at all times.

When entering a house, a guest is required to remove his shoes and change into the house slippers provided by the host. The guest is expected to wear it throughout his visit and change back into his shoes when he’s leaving.

When a house owner holds a housewarming to celebrate his moving in, he invites his family, friends, and neighbors over. The invited guest must bring something for his host to respond his kindness.

People nowadays bring toilet paper and soap/detergent as moving-in presents. It is said that those gifts will help new house owner to clean up and prepare his place to live comfortably. It is also believed that those gifts symbolize hope that everything will go well in the new living quarter.

Some rules when visiting other people’s house

What I Have Learned

The etiquettes I have described above are the most common ones I encounter when watching romantic-comedy K-Drama, which involves various angles of humans’ intimate interactions and relationships.

In that genre, the characters are often shown giving gifts to each other and visiting each other’s places. The interesting storylines and plots make it easy to identify the dos and don’ts during those occasions.

K-Dramas have proven to be successful once again in displaying the Korean culture, and I have learned a lot from watching them.

Until next article.

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