Navigating Cultural Differences In Korea

Moving to a new country is always a mix of excitement and uncertainty. When I moved to Korea, I was eager to start my job as an English teacher and learn all about the beautiful culture. In my first few weeks, I quickly realized that understanding the nuances of Korean etiquette was going to be an important part of adapting and making the most of my new life. With an open mind and a little bit of key knowledge, you can navigate these cultural differences and fully enjoy your time in Korea.


Showing Respect

One aspect of Korean culture that I knew about from all the dramas I watched was the emphasis on respect and cultural hierarchies. In Korea, two different forms of the language are used depending on if you are speaking to someone older or younger. Polite language, (존댓말, jondaetmal) must be used when speaking to strangers and elders as a way to show respect. In addition, it’s customary to bow when you greet someone older and the depth of your bow should reflect the other person’s age and status compared to your own. These small nuances can go a long way in showing your respect and appreciation of Korean culture and will help you integrate into daily life. I have adapted so much to bowing that I can’t stop myself from bowing even when I travel back home to Canada which is a cute new quirk of my international life!


English teachers posing at a temple in Korea wearing traditional hanboks

Dining Etiquette

Another way to show respect in Korea is at the dinner table. When eating with others, it’s polite to wait for the oldest person at the table to start eating before you do. If you’re offered food or drink, it’s best to accept it with both hands as a sign of respect. When pouring drinks for others, you should use two hands and pour for the eldest first, then serve the others. Everyone should wait until the eldest takes their drink and it is customary to turn your body away from the eldest while you drink as another way of showing respect.


Social Nuances

One part of the culture that surprised me at first was the different attitude towards personal space. Seoul is a mega city with millions of people so it’s not uncommon to find yourself in very close quarters with others in public transportation or markets. People can be pushy in these situations and seem to ignore your personal space but it is not a rude gesture, just a part of daily life here.


Another big difference I have noticed between Canada and Korea is the compliment culture. Back home, if someone told me that my haircut looked pretty, I would probably respond with “Thanks!” Koreans value modesty, so when receiving a compliment, it’s more likely that someone would try to avoid bragging and reject the compliment in order to show humility.


Embrace the Experience

Living in a new culture has its own challenges, but I have found that adapting to Korean culture is really rewarding. All of my Korean friends and coworkers are patient and understanding and have gone above and beyond trying to include me in their customs and to teach me the nuances of the culture. As you start your time teaching and living in Korea, don’t be shy to ask questions and to embrace the differences of Korean customs and etiquette. Not only will this help you integrate smoothly, but it will make your experience more meaningful!


English teacher, Michelle Duquette at Chungdahm Learning

Michelle Duquette, Marketing Assistant

Michelle Duquette is from Toronto, Canada and moved to South Korea in 2015. She has a Bachelors in English literature and a Masters in ESL Education. Michelle has taught at Creverse campuses in Gangneung, Songpa, and Mokdong and currently works as a CDI and April Trainer. Michelle never set out to be a teacher but fell in love with Korean culture and the excitement of being in the classroom. Michelle lives in Seoul with her partner and two cats, Cherry and Frost.