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What gestures to avoid in South Korea?


South Korea is a country with a rich cultural heritage and traditions that may be unfamiliar to foreigners. As a tourist or a foreigner living in South Korea, it is essential to be aware of certain gestures that may be offensive or disrespectful to the locals. Knowing these gestures can help you avoid any unintentional misunderstandings and show respect to the culture.


Bowing is a common gesture in South Korea, and it shows respect and gratitude towards someone. However, it is crucial to understand the different types of bows and when they are appropriate. A deep bow shows more respect than a shallow bow, and it is reserved for elders or people in high positions. Bowing with your hands in your pockets or crossed arms is considered rude.

Hand Gestures

Hand gestures are used worldwide, but some can be offensive in South Korea. Avoid pointing with your index finger as it is considered impolite. Instead, use your whole hand or gesture with your chin or head. The thumbs-up gesture, which means “good” or “okay” in many cultures, is seen as an insult in South Korea.

Body Language

Body language plays a significant role in communication, but it can also cause misunderstandings in South Korea. Avoid slouching or standing with your hands in your pockets as it is seen as impolite. Crossing your legs while sitting can also be considered disrespectful, especially when you are facing someone older or of higher status.

Eye Contact

In Western cultures, making eye contact when speaking shows sincerity and confidence. However, in South Korea, too much eye contact can be seen as aggressive or confrontational. It is essential to maintain eye contact when speaking, but do not stare for too long.

Giving Gifts

Giving gifts is a common practice in South Korea, but it is essential to understand the cultural significance behind it. Avoid giving gifts that are too expensive or flashy, as it can be seen as a bribe. Giving gifts in odd numbers is considered unlucky, and wrapping gifts in white or black paper is associated with funerals.

Public Display of Affection

Public display of affection is not common in South Korea, and it can be seen as inappropriate or disrespectful. Holding hands or hugging in public can make people uncomfortable, especially in conservative areas. It is best to avoid doing so in public.


Shoes are considered unclean in South Korea, and it is customary to remove them when entering someone’s home or a temple. It is essential to wear clean socks and avoid showing the soles of your feet, as it is considered impolite.


Chopsticks are the primary utensils used for eating in South Korea, and there are certain rules to follow when using them. Do not stick chopsticks vertically into a bowl of rice as it resembles incense sticks at a funeral. Passing food with chopsticks from one person to another is also considered impolite.

Personal Space

Personal space differs from culture to culture, and it is essential to be aware of this when interacting with locals. Standing too close or touching someone while speaking can be seen as intrusive. It is best to maintain a respectful distance when speaking.


Apologizing is a universal gesture, but there are different ways to apologize in South Korea. Saying “sorry” in Korean, “mianhamnida,” shows sincerity and respect towards the person you are apologizing to. Avoid using informal language or being insincere when apologizing.

Table Manners

Table manners are important in South Korea, and there are certain rules to follow when eating. Do not start eating until the eldest person at the table has started, and do not speak with your mouth full. Burping is seen as a compliment to the chef, but it is best to say “thank you” instead.


In conclusion, being aware of these gestures can help you avoid any misunderstandings and show respect to the culture. South Koreans are generally welcoming to foreigners, and they appreciate when visitors make an effort to understand their customs and traditions. By following these guidelines, you can have a more enjoyable and meaningful experience in South Korea.

What are some examples of rude behavior in Korea?

Actions that are considered impolite in your culture are likely to also be considered impolite in Korea. Behaviors like spitting, shouting, physically assaulting others, using offensive language, and behaving in an unpleasant manner are certainly considered rude in Korean culture.

What gestures show respect in Korea?

In Korean culture, the bow is a customary way to greet someone, though men may also shake hands. When shaking hands, it is polite to use your left hand to support your right forearm. Korean women typically nod slightly, while Western women may extend their hand to a Korean man as a sign of respect.

What should you avoid when giving gifts in Korea?

When giving gifts to Koreans, it is best to avoid expensive items as they may feel obligated to give something of equal value in return. It is also important to avoid items like knives or scissors which symbolize the ending of a relationship, green headwear, gifts with red writing which are associated with death, and gifts in sets of four which are also seen as a symbol of death.

What is non verbal gesture in South Korea?

In Korean culture, it is customary to use both hands when giving or receiving items. While the traditional greeting is a bow, handshakes are becoming more common. Koreans generally prefer not to be touched by strangers, and it is considered impolite to touch someone on the head, even for children.

Is smiling rude in Korea?

In Korean culture, smiling can sometimes be a sign of embarrassment or shame, in addition to being a signal of happiness or humor. For instance, a person might smile after making a mistake. On the other hand, sneezing is viewed as impolite in Korea.

What is considered inappropriate clothing in Korea?

In South Korea’s major cities, it is common for women to wear short-shorts and skirts. However, exposed shoulders and low-cut tops are still considered inappropriate in most places. During hot summers, loose-fitting t-shirts are a good option instead of tank tops.


South Korean is the official language spoken in South Korea, but many locals also speak English. It is essential to learn some basic Korean phrases to communicate with locals, and it shows respect towards the culture. Learning how to say “hello,” “thank you,” and “sorry” in Korean can go a long way in making connections with locals.


Tipping is not customary in South Korea, and it is not expected at restaurants or other service-oriented businesses. Some high-end restaurants may include a service charge, but it is still not necessary to leave an additional tip. However, if you receive exceptional service, you can show your appreciation by leaving a small gift or writing a positive review.

Drinking Culture

Drinking culture is prevalent in South Korea, and it is common for locals to enjoy alcohol after work or during social gatherings. It is customary to pour drinks for others rather than yourself, and it is polite to accept a drink when offered. However, it is essential to drink responsibly and know your limits.

Public Transportation

Public transportation is efficient and affordable in South Korea, but there are certain rules to follow when using it. It is essential to queue up and wait for your turn to board the bus or subway. Eating or drinking on public transportation is considered impolite, and it is important to keep your voice down and avoid talking on your phone.

Dress Code

Dress code varies depending on the occasion in South Korea, but it is essential to dress modestly when visiting temples or other religious sites. Avoid wearing revealing clothing or shorts as it can be seen as disrespectful. Business attire is also expected in formal settings, and it is important to dress professionally.


Overall, respecting the customs and traditions of South Korea can go a long way in making connections with locals and having a positive experience. By being aware of the gestures, language, and cultural norms, you can avoid any unintentional misunderstandings and show respect towards the culture. South Korea is a beautiful country with a rich history and culture, and by following these guidelines, you can have a more meaningful and enjoyable experience.

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