Some “Do’s” and “Don’t’s” in Korea if You Want Friends

If you read my blogs, I have said in the past I am constantly keeping my eyes open for ideas of good things to write about. I read books. I talk to people. I look at Facebook to see what people are talking about. I let people send questions to my email in box for me to answer, and all of these and many other things give me good ideas. Today, I got another good question.  Someone wanted to know some “do’s and “don’t’s” in Korea.  Here are a few things that will help you make friends in Korea.

woman in white green and orange floral spaghetti strap top sitting on pedestrian lane
This blouse is very much not acceptable in Korea.///Photo by Renato Abati on Pexels.com

First of all, the girls need to know that their clothing is going to be scrutinized for the Korean standard of modesty which is not the same as the west.  You may see pictures of celebrities doing these things in Korea, but if you do these things, you will be looked at as bad.  Women should never wear a low cut top in Korea.  The average girl or woman just doesn’t do it.  They also don’t wear sleeveless tops. I don’t normally wear low cut tops, but sleeveless tops are just as bad as low cut tops in Korea, and I had to learn it. You might see a Korean girl in really short shorts, and they accept that, but they don’t accept sleeveless tops.  In the west, the nicest women don’t wear short shorts, but the nicest women may wear short shorts in Korea. I have thought about it, and perhaps it is because our legs are so long in the west, and most of them have short legs.  Not as much skin is showing when a Korean wears short shorts.  As for the sleeveless tops, it drives me crazy because if I have a dress or a blouse with no sleeves, as a nice woman, I am expected to wear something over it.  I don’t want to wear a sweater in the summer, so I have a couple of lace jackets I put over my clothes if I have something I want to wear that has no sleeves.  The average Korean woman doesn’t try to dress sexy.  Often, they wear something you might think a little girl might wear.

photo of a toast
The many dishes in this photo look like the many dishes they bring you in Korea at a restaurant. Everyone will be eating out of the same plates. There are times they might try to force you to drink liquor, but if you don’t drink, there are ways to get around it without offending anyone.//Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

I learned a new term today in my reading. It was “black night.” This is a good term to know in Korea.  At times, there are older Koreans or Koreans who are in charge who try to make the others drink, and the ones under them feel compelled to drink whether they want to or not. The older students may make the younger student drink. Bosses could try to make employees drink.  In the first school I was in in Korea, we had a principle that was always trying to force everyone to drink. There were teachers who didn’t want to drink, and they were trying every way they could to get out of it.  I saw them pouring the liquor in plants. I saw them keeping cups under the table and when the principal wasn’t looking, pouring the liquor in the cup under the table so he would think they drank it. I saw them  keeping a glass of water on the table that looked just like the glass the principal was pouring liquor into, and they would switch it when the principal wasn’t looking. When the principal looked, they were drinking water, but he thought they were drinking liquor.  As for me, I don’t drink, and it caused a problem for me.  The Korean teachers told me they couldn’t refuse him, but since I was a foreigner, they thought it was okay for me to turn him down when he came around and tried to fill my glass with liquor, and it was okay.  However, I read today that if I didn’t want to drink, I could have called for a “black night.”  They explained that a “black night” was someone who didn’t mind drinking in your place.  If the boss or the older student is trying to push liquor on you that you don’t want, you just pass it to the person who has volunteered to be your black night.

water pouring on glass
Pour other people’s water for them, and  let them pour yours.///Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

If you are drinking, you turn your back to elders when you take a drink.  If you are handing something like a drink to an elder, then you give it to them with two hands.  If you are in a restaurant eating, there will always be a bottle of cold water and lots of small cups for each person. Don’t fill your own cup.  Someone will fill it for you, and you will fill theirs.

photo of people smiling
Americans, especially southerners, may hug for many reasons, but this could make Koreans and Japanese uncomfortable, so be careful.  Know them well before you try unless you want them to freak out.///Photo by Ana Francisconi on Pexels.com

There is another concept in Korea and Japan both called “skin ship.”  In the west, it is common to see two young people walking around holding hands.  However, in Korea and Japan it is not as common. Even though it is catching on in Korea. You don’t touch other people in Korea and Japan unless you are very close to them.  My Japanese son in law was extremely funny when he went to meet my family in the southern part of the United States. American southerners can be very friendly!  My kids, including my Japanese son in law, and I drove south and met my mom and dad and my sister and her family half way at a hotel once between the north and south. I was living in the north then.  When we met, everyone was excited and hugging everyone else.  That is what you do if you haven’t seen family members or good friends for a while if you are a southerner in the U. S.  However, my Japanese son in law just couldn’t take it!!  Everyone was hugging him, and he went nuts!  It scared him to death! He stood there stiff with his arms against his sides very uncomfortable.  They were welcoming him in as part of the family, but it felt really strange to him.  I went to his baptism, and when he was baptized, I wanted to grab him and hug him and tell him congratulations because that is what American Christians often do at baptisms. However, I knew better.  I greeted him, told him how happy I was for him, and I bowed, and he felt good.  I am going to the states soon with my daughter and Korean son in law, and I really wonder what he is going to do if someone grabs him and hugs him.

photo of people doing fist bump
Being part of the group is important in Korea.  Often, you will fee like you can’t go home in the evening even if you want because all your coworkers will want you to go out to eat with them. They may be married, but being part of the group will be more important to them than going home to eat with their families.///Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

If you come to Korea, you must take part with the others.  Korea is a very community oriented society.  If you are connected to a school, they will have MT.  MT is “Membership Training.”  It is basically a retreat, but not a spiritual retreat like young people in America might attend.  It is a big party all weekend at a resort in the mountains or somewhere similar for everyone to get to know one another.  Teachers and students alike go.  If you don’t go, it is like snubbing them, and they will feel like you don’t like them.  I have been to many of these.  They sleep on the floor.  You share the room with others who also sleep on the floor. You play games as a big group. If you are a student, maybe games are with the freshman class or with all the English majors. You may also meet in one big room with everyone who has come to MT.  This is where the students began me singing a lot of karaoke songs because they always requested professors sing at these things. At the beginning of school, they introduce the teachers at these.  I became an expert on how to handle an MT while teaching at KCU and what to do.  I brought an air mattress so I wouldn’t have to sleep right down on the hard floor.  I brought snacks to eat in my room, and I brought enough for the other teachers I shared the room with because sharing the food in Korea is very important.

Here are some cards from my Apples to Apples game.  It was so popular that many of the professors wanted a copy too, but you can’t buy it in Korea. However, you can order it online. Anyone who can speak just a little English enjoys it, and if you don’t know the words, you can look them up in the dictionary. One student told me some ESL teachers use this as a vocabulary game to build student’s vocabularies.
Here is my Scrabble game. You can say that it is very well worn because it has been played a lot! Not only the English teachers wanted to play it, but the English majors loved to play it too. Apples to Apples and Scrabble are two of my favorite games. I bought it in Korea at English Village, a kind of English amusement park for Koreans.


Here is my Mexican Train game.  It is not sold in Korea, but the ones who didn’t speak English enjoyed playing this.  I brought it from the States.  In Romania, the old men used to get together at the park and play Chess. Here in Korea, the old men get together at the park and play some sort of Chinese game I don’t know how to play.  In Oklahoma, where my family is from, the old men get together at the Senior Citizen’s Center and play this everyday. It is a fun game too. 

I brought games to play at the MTs.  All the teachers loved my “Apples to Apples” game, and I learned through that game that many of the professors spoke English. If you have never played it, play it. It is hilarious!!  You match random adjectives and nouns and it all turns into a big joke, and everyone ends up laughing. The English teachers liked Scrabble, a word game. You make words like a crossword puzzle for points.  The English teachers liked this game so much that they basically missed all the other activities at MT one year playing Scrabble in our room together.  If I was playing with teachers who couldn’t speak English, I chose a game where they didn’t have to speak English.  My mother taught me to play a game called Mexican Train.  It is a dominoes game. You don’t have to know any English to play it, and I used to get it out when we had the
Chinese teachers around, and they all liked that.  In Korea, if you play games with a group,  if you win or maybe if you lose, you may be treated pretty crazy.  The others may insist that you sing them a song or something like that. You might have won, but many people don’t want to sing for others, and they may feel as if they have lost because the group may be there insisting on a song or a dance.  I have seen students lose at games before, and the rest of the group decided it was time for all of them to punish them for losing and came around and each hit them on the back.

woman in red sleeveless dress with canada flag printed background
In America, this blouse is completely modest, and they wear it when the weather is hot, but even this wouldn’t be acceptable in Korea.  Photo by Andre Furtado on Pexels.com

These are just a few things to think about that go on in Korea and how to handle them.  The MT’s can end up quite fun, so give them a try if you are at a Korean school. They will help you make friends. If you don’t drink, all is not lost if someone in a position higher than you are decided to try to make you drink. There are ways to get around getting drunk, especially if you are a foreigner.  If you are young, remember the Korean hierarchy in the society, and respect it. If you are a woman, be careful of your clothing.  Things you might have worn at home may not be acceptable in Korea.  If you are a woman, you really don’t want people to start asking if you are Russian.  If you are Russian in Korea, it means they think you are a prostitute. Be careful. If you are actually from Russia, I am sorry they have that idea about Russian women.  Russian women will have to be especially careful in Korea because of their reputation. Don’t show your cleavage or bare arms at all if you are woman in Korea.  Eat with them. Play with them.  They don’t like to go home. They are community oriented people. They enjoy being in a big group together, and they want you to enjoy being with them too.  Make friends.







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