Being polite in Korea

During my childhood, I was taught to be polite in every daily situation. My mother would be extremely proud whenever my brother’s or my own behavior was praised by adults. When I was a young boy, I wanted to make my mother proud and therefore strived to be a well-mannered citizen. This self-evident principle is still valid today. 

However, here in South Korea, I recognized directly that the rules of etiquette are not just a little but completely different. After spending the mandatory seven days of self-isolation in Seoul, two weeks ago I was finally allowed to leave my quarantine hotel. Therefore, this short essay is a summary of my first impressions about Korean politeness gathered during that short time span. This essay should by no means to be understood as a guide, but merely describes my subjective perception.

Firstly, the Koreans take a bow very often. I have observed this custom in greetings, expressions of gratitude or farewells. This habit reminds me of the old history books or even fairy tales in which the simple people bow to royalty, kings and queens. Therefore, in my comprehension, bowing expresses respect, loyalty and visualizes hierarchy. It is important to note that I have never experienced it in my daily routine at home. Here in Seoul, it is omnipresent. Luckily, it is very easy to adapt to and in doubt simply take a bow more than maybe necessary.

Secondly, Koreans do not touch each other. In Switzerland, we shake hands to greet or introduce ourselves. Friends hug and in the French-speaking Western region of Switzerland we “faire la bise”, give brief kisses on our cheeks. Not here in Korea! I have been told that this lack of physical touch has nothing to do with the Covid19 pandemic, but with local cultural practices. Here, it makes sense to consider the above-mentioned bowing custom as a direct substitute for shaking hands. People bow instead of shaking hands. Hereby, it is important to think twice when meeting someone to not attempt any form physical contact. I personally have adopted a different greeting routine towards Koreans and non-Koreans, for example international students. Do not worry, if Koreans stay socially distanced around you, it does not mean that they believe you have contracted the virus. 

Thirdly, Korean society is segmented into various hierarchical groups. In Switzerland, it is self-explanatory that a child uses the formal form “siezen”, to address an adult, that a manager has a higher rank than an intern and therefore takes decisions or that a professor is in a hierarchically higher position than his or her student. In Korea this division is clearly more complex and multilayered. My Korean friend told me that there are hierarchical differences based on age, position/function, and seniority – experiences measured in time while occupying a particular position. This means  if two co-workers hold the same title, the one that got promoted into the mentioned position before his or her colleague was is ranked higher. Honestly, I wish I could scientifically study and verify this statement from a business organizational point of view. But as you can imagine, this cultural practice is not limited to work. This distinction reaches across all parts of society including families, namely between generations and even among siblings. The applied threshold is meant to a difference of one year or longer. I have been told that the lower positioned individual is supposed to bow deeper and for longer to show respect towards the higher experienced counterpart. For this reason, it is very common that Koreans ask your age directly after you are introduced each other. This is not considered rude because it is considered essential for polite future interactions. . 

The decision to focus on the concept of bowing allowed me to narrow down the versality of the Korean politeness cultural practice. I deliberately excluded the linguistic differences, as I am not even remotely able to engage with them. To keep it short, “siezen/duzen” is not only applied to personal pronouns and a conjugated verb, but to nearly every word in a sentence. 

In conclusion, I believe I have only been able to hint at how complex the formal etiquette is and therefore difficult to master for strangers. Personally, I feel like a small child again, trying to be polite as I have been taught to. Relying alone on my Swiss cultural background is clearly insufficient to be polite here in Korea. Obviously, I try my best to apply the local rules and switch my habitus in a way I have never ever considered before arriving in South Korea. I simply hope I do well enough!

Felix Bieri

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