Korean courtesy requires special scrutiny

Published12/29/2007 12:24 PM

While dining in an upscale Seoul restaurant, a well-dressed, middle-aged gentleman at an adjoining table suddenly let out a very loud belch.

I automatically averted my eyes, only to be asked what was wrong by my Korean colleague.


"I guess I am embarrassed for that man," I said softly, still a bit shocked.

"Oh, don't be," said my Asian friend. "Letting out gas to make yourself more comfortable is perfectly acceptable here."

Not totally convinced, I made a silent note to self: Watch for a repeat performance to make sure public burping is the proper way to act when visiting Korea.

Alas, I never did hear anyone else's burp during that trip (or any other to Seoul), but I have been reassured many times by many Korean counterparts that the practice is definitely on the up-and-up.

"Still, I think I'll keep those kinds of sounds to myself," I commented in kind whenever I was reassured about this surprising practice.

To be sure, learning the ins and outs of how to behave in Korea takes special scrutiny. That said, following are some other culturally correct ways to act in this Southeast Asian hub:

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• Suppress the need to blow your nose in public. Instead, find a private place to take action or you will be considered crass.

• When someone says "yes" to a question, he or she might really mean "no." In Korea, it is more popular to answer in the affirmative, so that happens on a regular basis -- even when the true answer is negative.

• When you initially meet someone, even for business purposes, skip the shop talk for small talk and you will be seen as trustworthy. If you shift immediately into work mode, you will be starting off on the wrong foot.

• Also, when you first meet someone, do not be shy about who you are and what you have accomplished. It is very acceptable to become a talking resume at that point, and you can expect the same from your Korean counterpart.

• Although Americans sometimes call the index finger the pointing finger, don't use it for that purpose in Korea as pointing at anything or anyone is considered improper.


• Always have a small gift, such as a key chain marked with your company logo or a small box of chocolates, on hand. In Korea, there are many occasions in which it is proper to exchange presents.

• When conducting business in Korea, you can find out how your meeting went by simply watching how your Korean contact bows as the gathering comes to a close. If he or she goes low and deep, you can consider your talk successful. If the bow is short and shallow, you can assume that that particular work effort was not very well received.

• Finally, never discuss Korean culture in public. Rather, take this topic private and make it among friends because even if you say something nice when you are out and about on how traditions are practiced in this friendly Asian country, you will be breaking the rules of proper Korean etiquette.

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