A Quick-and-Dirty Guide to Korean Culture

March 8, 2018 Dennis Ottley

Traditions and values of Korean culture

Korean culture

Once a unified country, the mountainous Korean peninsula was split into two separate nations—North Korea and South Korea—after World War II. Despite the geographical and political division between the modernized South and the isolationist North, many of their citizens still adhere to similar practices and beliefs that make up Korean culture.

In contrast to the Western individualism, the traditions and values of Korean culture highlight family, community, and society—the latter being the most important.

Often, traditional Korean society place great value on a system of hierarchy, most evident in families. The father is the family’s head, who is to be obeyed by every member. He is responsible for securing food, shelter, clothing, health, and approving his offspring’s marital decisions. The eldest son is expected to follow his father’s footsteps and help him in managing family affairs.

Tradition prohibits women from decision-making and limits them to keeping the household ticking. Thankfully, this is slowly changing as females have started progressing up the ranks in various professions in modern times.

In Korea, bowing is seen as a sign of respect (especially toward elders). A bow’s depth depends on the occasion and the person being bowed to. If a slight head tilt is accepted in informal circumstances, formal settings warrant a much lower bow, with hands placed either at the sides or held in front.

Gift giving remains essential, even in the 21st century. Because Koreans are big on reciprocating, gifts are given out in accordance to the capacity and affordability of the recipient. They steer clear from giving gifts in multiples of four as they believe it is an unlucky number. They also avoid wrapping their gifts in black, white, and green, deeming it offensive.

When it comes to eating, Koreans follow a standard protocol. Leaving chopsticks sticking out of the rice bowl is a no-no as it is a way of offering rice to the deceased. No indoor farewells should be conducted, and the practice of the male host serving drinks is also a must.

Why is Korean culture popular, you ask? You can credit its rise to fame to the spread of the Korean Wave (or, as locals call it, Hallyu). Korean television dramas, movies, or music—there’s no denying that interest in Korean culture spiked due to the influx of Korean content. The fact that South Korean government funding and active support for local content for over ten years has played a major part in the Korean Wave’s continued impact around the world.

Should you plan to visit Korea, it’s best to learn Korean culture to have a better travel experience. After all, you wouldn’t want to put yourself in an embarrassing situation—especially in a foreign country.


What do you think of the Korean Wave? Feel free to leave a comment below or leave me a message on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads. Read more about Korea and its culture, in Dennis Ottley’s book, Remembering: (Korea: 1950–1953).



Briney, Amanda. 2017. “The Korean Peninsula.” ThoughtCo, March 17. Accessed January 30, 2018.

Choi, Christy, and Amy Nip. 2012. “How Korean Culture Stormed the World.” South China Morning Post, December 1. Accessed January 30, 2018.

Goel, Tarun. 2015. “Korean Customs and Beliefs.” Bright Hub Education, April 20. Accessed January 30, 2018.

Kim, Keith. 2013. “When and How to Bow in Korea.” Seoulistic, February 25. Accessed January 30, 2018.

Tharp, Chris. 2016. “10 Korean Customs to Know Before You Visit Korea.” Matador Network, December 9. Accessed January 30, 2018.

PBS. 2018. “Hidden Korea: Culture.” Accessed January 31, 2018.

zKorean. 2018. “Korean Customs—in General.” Accessed January 31, 2018.

zKorean. 2018\. “Korean Customs—Respect.” Accessed January 31, 2018.

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