“Gimmieaventidecafwithlegsandleaveroom,” a sturdy tourist blurted from across the counter.
The Korean Starbucks barista froze behind her register.
“Give me a venti decaf with legs, and leave room,” the man repeated, this time slower but annoyed.
The barista nodded her head, punched something into the register, and pointed to the card reader. I’m sure the customer got some variant of coffee, but I promise he didn’t get what he meant to order.
I think most tourists would agree that speaking in jargon-filled English at the speed of an auctioneer in any country whose official language isn’t English is rude and, perhaps, a bit ethnocentric. If a visitor did that in the US, people would be annoyed.
But, even if you consider yourself a well-mannered globetrotter, there’s likely a few other South Korean faux paus you could break unwittingly if you aren’t privy to them. If you want to have a fantastic time in Korea and leave a fantastic impression, check out these six things tourists do in South Korea that drive locals crazy before boarding your flight.
1. Wear inappropriate clothing.
If you’re a man traveling to South Korea for sightseeing and soju, feel free to rock Crocs and a fanny pack. But if you’re a man traveling for business or to work in South Korea, it’s better to overdress than to underdress. Jeans and Converses might work in Silicon Valley, but not in South Korea.
The same workplace rules apply to women, who should wear pencil skirts or pants, a blouse, and close-toed shoes.
But for women, there’s more. Ladies, the good news: you can break out your high school mini-skirts and short-shorts; bare all of the leg you want. The not-so-good news: you should leave any cleavage-baring tops, spaghetti straps, and back-bearing shirts at home.
While these sort of tops are more common in some areas in Seoul home to a younger crowd, such as Hongdae, these pieces of clothing will get you extra negative attention elsewhere. Some men might ogle, and older Korean ladies might scold you (Yes, in public!). But this doesn’t mean you have to buy a whole new wardrobe; pairing a cardigan with these types of tops works wonders.
2. Talk loudly on the subway.
After being in Korea for only a year and a half, I can tell if a foreigner on the subway is new to South Korea or not just by their speaking volume. Talking on the subway isn’t taboo. But, Koreans on public transportation speak at a low hum to avoid disrupting others.
Some foreigners who visit Korea have a naturally louder speaking voice, or perhaps aren’t used to taking public transportation, so they often speak louder without realizing it. Keep this Korean pet-peeve in mind to avoid a bus full of glares.
3. Greet friends with hugs.
Where I come from in Florida, friends hug their friends. I learned the awkward way that this isn’t a Korean tradition. The one time I forgot this quirk, I went in to bear-hug my Korean co-teacher I hadn’t seen in months, and she politely dove to the left and patted my shoulder.
Instead, you can do a slight bow. (Please do not do a full half-angle bow for your friends, or they’ll think you’re very strange.) Waving hello and goodbye is also OK with millennials and younger people.
4. Throw toilet paper in the toilet.
Rule number four: Don’t throw toilet tissue in the toilet. Usually.
Korean plumbing systems aren’t so good at dealing with toilet tissue, so most bathrooms require the wastebasket-method. When you’re done with your business, just throw the tissue into the basket. (Yes, even “number two” tissue.) If you just recoiled in disgust, I feel you. But, do you really want to be that one “waygookin” (foreigner) who clogs the toilet and overflows the restroom?
5. Wear shoes indoors.
Remember the co-teacher I mentioned above in the awkward hugging situation? When I first came to Korea, I invited this same co-teacher into my house. She began untying her shoes, so I stopped her and said, “It’s OK! You don’t need to take your shoes off.”
She looked horrified. She said nothing, and she took her shoes off, anyway.
You should follow suit. The same goes for restaurants and even schools. If everyone else is sock-footed or in slippers, you should do the same. If everyone is wearing shoes, it’s OK to keep them on. Honestly, I’m not sure if the tradition stemmed from a germaphobe or if there’s a deeper reason behind it, but in Korea, it’s just what you do.
6. Be insensitive about Japan.
Korea has a long, complicated history with Japan that many tourists, long-term foreign residents, and even presidents don’t fully grasp. It’s best to do some research on Korean-Japanese relations before you pack your bags.
But, if you’re reading this with airline-pretzel crumbs already spilling from your mouth, just play by this rule: approach topics about Japan delicately. Do not refer to the “East Sea” as the “Sea of Japan,” respect the comfort women statues, and for the love of god don’t mention Dokdo.
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