South Korean Culture


Primary Author
Nina Evason,


  • Indirect Communication: The South Korean communication pattern is generally and quite verbose. They tend to rely less on words and are attentive to a speaker’s posture, expression and tone of voice to draw meaning. Speech can be ambiguous as they often understate their point. The purpose of this is to maintain throughout the conversation and prevent a loss of on either end of the exchange. The best way of navigating this rhetoric to find the underlying meaning is to check for clarification several times through open-ended questions.
  • Refusals: A South Korean’s preoccupation with saving and means that they will seldom give a flat ‘no’ or negative response, even when they don’t agree with you. Therefore, focus on hints of hesitation, listening to what they say, but also paying careful attention to what they subtly imply.
  • Speech Style: While they may be in their communication style, South Koreans generally speak quite firmly and use less gestures and facial expressions. This can make them come across as stern. Expect them to give serious replies and retorts. They also tend to ask questions in order to discern their status in comparison to the person they are talking to. These can catch people off guard (for example: “How much do you earn?” or “How old are you?”).
  • Silence: Silence is an important and purposeful tool used in Asian communication. Pausing before giving a response indicates that someone has applied appropriate thought and consideration to the question. It reflects and respect.
  • Laughter: Laughter is sometimes used in awkward situations. A Korean may laugh when they feel uncomfortable and not necessarily because what was said was genuinely funny.


  • Physical Contact: Koreans are generally not very physically affectionate with one another. However,  girls and young women may walk hand-in-hand and male friends may touch one another more frequently than what is the norm amongst western men.
  • Personal Space: Personal space is not guarded very closely in Korea. People generally expect to come into contact with strangers on busy streets and tend not to worry or apologise when personal space is invaded.
  • Pointing: People do not point with their index finger but rather with their entire hand.
  • Beckoning: One beckons by fluttering all fingers to one’s hand with the palm facing towards the ground.
  • Eye Contact: During a discussion or friendly conversation, make full eye contact with the person you are talking to. Avoid eye contact if you are scolded/rebuked by someone older or of a higher status than you. Some Koreans may also avoid eye contact with their superiors on a regular basis. 
  • Gestures: It is considered rude to make a fist with your hand while placing the thumb between the middle and index finger.
  • Expressions: Koreans may appear quite straight-faced in conversation. However, their facial expressions can often immediately reveal when they are angry or in disagreement.
  • Smiling: As well as an expression of glee and humour, smiling can indicate that one is feeling ashamed or embarrassed in Korean culture. For example, a Korean may smile when they make a mistake.
  • Sneezing: Sneezing is considered rude in Korea. It is best practice to excuse yourself from the room if you have to.
  • Hands: Koreans mostly use their right hand for all greetings and gestures. This is related to the complementary concepts of ‘yin’ and ‘yang’. The energy of the right hand is considered more ‘yang’, which is characterised as positive, bright, and masculine. The left hand is considered to be more ‘yin’, an inward energy that is associated with femininity, darkness and coldness. For this reason, use two hands or your right hand alone when touching others, exchanging objects, etc.
  • The left hand is used when greeting at funerals or performing certain rituals for ancestors. Using the left hand to handshake or otherwise exchange something with another person can be perceived as bad luck, due to its connotations with negativity and death. Most Koreans will not be bothered if you use the left hand by mistake. However, older Koreans and those in conventional or formal settings (e.g. business settings) may be offended. 

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