Student in Korea

Embracing the New: Understanding South Korean Cultural Differences

Experience the vibrancy of South Korean culture! This article uncovers unique Korean cultural norms and etiquette that may surprise international students, offering a rich understanding of this beautiful country.
Embracing the New: Understanding South Korean Cultural Differences
Photo by rawkkim / Unsplash

Stepping onto Korean soil as an international student offers a blend of excitement, anticipation, and a dash of anxiety. One aspect contributing to this feeling could be the distinct cultural differences. While they may initially surprise you, understanding and embracing these differences can enrich your experience. Here are some cultural peculiarities in South Korea that may surprise international students.

Hierarchical Society

South Korea has a deeply rooted Confucian value system, which respects age and status. Relationships are defined by hierarchy, and language changes based on the status of the person you're speaking to. This may seem unusual, but adapting involves being mindful of these social hierarchies and showing respect accordingly.


'Jeong' is a unique Korean concept that doesn't have a direct English translation. It refers to the emotional bond and warmth shared among individuals, established over time. Koreans often display Jeong through acts of kindness, which may seem excessive to outsiders. Embrace it, as this signifies you are being accepted into their community.

Collectivism vs. Individualism

Unlike Western societies emphasizing individualism, Korean society leans towards collectivism. Group consensus is often valued more than individual opinion, which might be surprising for students from individualistic cultures. Being aware of this difference will help you better interact in group settings.

Food Culture

Meal times in Korea are communal, and food etiquette is highly valued. For example, you should never lift your rice bowl from the table or stick chopsticks vertically into the rice, as it's disrespectful. Also, Korea has vibrant and unique cuisine - fermented dishes, spicy soups, and street food like tteokbokki might surprise your palate initially.

Drinking Etiquette

Alcohol consumption is a significant part of socializing in Korea. There's even etiquette for pouring and receiving drinks. Always use two hands when pouring or receiving a drink from an elder, and turn your head away when drinking in their presence. This could seem peculiar, but it's a sign of respect.

Shoes Off

In Korea, removing your shoes before entering someone's home and even some restaurants and cafes is customary. This might be unusual for those from cultures where shoes are usually worn indoors.

Directness vs. Indirectness

In conversations, Koreans often prioritize harmony and avoid direct conflict, which may seem ambiguous to those from more straightforward cultures. It's essential to pay attention to non-verbal cues and implied meanings.

In conclusion, the cultural differences in South Korea may initially surprise international students. However, these differences make the experience of studying abroad more vibrant and enriching. By understanding and respecting these aspects of Korean culture, students can ensure a more enjoyable and inclusive experience during their academic journey in South Korea. After all, studying abroad is not only about the education you receive but also the cultural understanding and personal growth you gain.

About the author
Sasha Smirnova

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