The Main Differences Between Korean and Western Culture

1. The Eastern Group Mentality vs. The Western Individual Mentality

 As a general rule, it can be said that Koreans (and Far-East Asians in general) are more group-oriented than Westerners who tend to be more individual-oriented. This can be simplified to:

A Westerner does what he/she needs

A Korean does what the group needs

Of course this is a big generalization, but it fits well with what you will experience every day in Korea.

This can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you will (sometimes) be expected to give up your time and energy when you would rather not, for example being asked to attend staff dinners, school trips at weekends, (occasional) extra responsibilities during work time. But on the other hand, you will find people giving up their time and energy to help you with things, whether it is changing apartment,, arranging banking stuff, medical things etc. more than people back home might. So in reality there are good and bad things with both cultures. The most important thing is to be prepared for the Korean way of doing things.

2. Sickness and absence

It is very common for Korean people to come to work even when they are sick, if only to rest at their desk. This is part of the culture of showing diligence and dedication.

It is also the norm to go to hospital for most conditions, even a common cold.

3. Personal space (or lack of it)

South Korea is crowded. Of countries with a population over ten million, South Korea has the third highest population density (not population) in the world (higher than Japan or India) 1. In other words, in a small space, there are a lot of people. Because of this, Koreans are very used to standing, walking, eating, working, commuting etc. close to other people.

Note too that Koreans are much more likely to touch each other (and you) on the hand, arm, and if you are sitting down together, leg (men included). This is a sign of familiarity, friendship, closeness, or trust.

4. Personal questions and information

Be prepared that many Korean people who have just met you may ask you how old you are, and whether you are married. If you are unmarried and above a certain age (maybe late 20s), you may then be asked why you aren’t married. Korea still has many elements of a traditional and conservative society, and so getting married and starting a family is basically expected of everyone. These days a typical Korean man might be married by his early thirties, and a Korean woman by her late twenties. This isn’t so different to Western culture. But unmarried couples in Korea very rarely live together (at least not openly).

Korean people will often ask you questions like “Where are you going?”, or over the phone “What are you doing?” or “Who are you with?”. These questions might seem too direct or personal to Western people, but they are normal to Koreans.

Things like your annual medical check (required by employment law) will almost certainly be sent directly to your school. However, if you visit a doctor by yourself (and most doctors in Korea will be able to say at least medical conditions in English), the information shouldn’t go any further.

5. Direct way of speaking

Koreans are often more direct in their way of talking, for example they might say “Your nose is very big!” or “Why are you fat?”. This isn’t considered so rude to Korean people.

You may receive advice even if you don’t ask for it. “You should get a haircut!”/”You need to lose weight!”/”Your class is very boring!”. This is just part of the closeness of Korean culture. Interpersonal barriers are much smaller in many ways.

6. Food and drink

Korean food is fairly diverse and you are bound to find lots of dishes you enjoy. Most Korean meals will revolve around a main protein (either fish, meat, egg or tofu) along with various side dishes (such as kimchi), a soup and a serving of rice. Koreans generally do not have starters/appetizers and puddings/desserts in the same way as Westerners, although if you are craving cake or ice cream you can get it elsewhere.

As a general rule Korean food has a lot of spicy and sour flavors. It’s actually not as hot as other countries’ foods (such as an Indian curry). The sour flavors can take some getting used to (as an example, it took me about two years to finally like kimchi.)

Koreans do not tend to have alcohol without food, except in some bars. Most dinners with your school will include a lot of beer and soju (a clear Korean alcohol made from sweet potatoes). If you do not drink alcohol it is no problem, but be prepared that a lot of people will want you to drink something they poured for you. You can get around this by pretending to sip, replacing soju with water, or simply saying thanks but no thanks. Note that in many bars you can only order drinks if you order a plate of food (such as a fruit salad, fried chicken etc.).

If you are vegetarian (or in particular a vegan), be aware that some dishes which seem to have no meat/fish (such as many soups) actually contain some meat/fish stock or small pieces of meat/seafood.


1 Population Density.

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  3. Teaching English in South Korea
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