Respect for your elders is deeply ingrained in Korean culture. This respect is based on Confucian philosophy and is essential to Korean values and norms. From a young age, children are taught to respect their elders. So even when making important life decisions, the opinion of your grandparents and parents counts.
Why is it important to respect your elders?
Confucianism played a significant role in shaping Korean culture. It emphasizes the importance of hierarchical structure and respect for authority figures, especially your elders. It also fosters values like filial piety, which means being dutiful and loyal toward your family and elderly figures in your family.
South Koreans highly value a strong family bond. Elders are seen as the wisest members of the family and are accorded respect because of their life experience and age.
Many Koreans pay tribute to their ancestors. Elders usually link the living and the deceased, making their role of preserving family rituals invaluable.
Kibun: A Korean sense of personal well-being
Kibun is a fascinating aspect of Korean etiquette. It has no direct translation in English, but it roughly translates as mood, feelings, pride, and a state of mind. You have to balance your kibun to maintain harmony in your interactions.
You also have to judge someone else’s kibun to avoid offending them. The ability to do this is called nunchi. But while appeasing someone else’s kibun, it’s important not to lose yours. It’s sometimes okay to tell a white lie if you feel your interactions will upset your kibun.
You can learn nunchi by observing a person’s tone, body language, facial expressions, and what they say during conversations.
Korean etiquette to your elders
Like in Japan, bowing is a familiar gesture of respect. When meeting an elder in a formal setting or for the first time, it’s customary to bow. If you are a man, you should bow before shaking hands, and your left arm should always support your right forearm.
Women don’t shake hands after a bow; they may nod their heads in an informal setting. The degree of your bow depends on the status and age of the elder.
Respect personal space
Touching a stranger will be seen as something deeply insulting. Don’t pat someone unfamiliar on the back or hug them — more so if they are older than you.
Also, unlike some cultures where direct eye contact shows confidence, direct and prolonged eye contact is impolite in Korean culture. It may be seen as a challenge, especially if you’re speaking to an authority figure.
Whether invited to someone’s home or a restaurant, wait until your host seats you. Usually, the seat facing the front door or the one with a full view of the room is the seat of honor. If offered that seat, politely decline. So, younger people should let their elders choose their seats first.
And when the meal is served, the oldest person will be served first. Don’t eat until they start eating. And when using chopsticks, don’t point at people with them or leave them sticking out of your bowl. If you’re not using them, place them on your bowl.
Also, it’s inappropriate for an adult to eat while walking. So if you want street food, ensure you eat your food at the stand. And ensure you never use your fingers to eat — spoons are for soup and chopsticks for everything else.
Lastly, don’t tip if you’re in a restaurant. Some people may see that as rude.
Once you’ve had your meal, you may be invited to go out for a drink. It’s an integral part of Korean culture, showing the host’s status, machismo, and stamina.
If you don’t want to drink, try to find a good reason, such as a medical one. Don’t refuse to drink with them in a way that sounds like you judge the person’s morals. If you go out with your host and you’ve had your fill, don’t empty your glass, as it will always be topped up.
When drinking with your elders, turning your head away is customary to take an offered drink. And when you sit, don’t face them directly; tilt your body to the right. And if you’re pouring a drink for yourself, always fill the other people’s glasses before your own.
Giving and receiving gifts
Giving gifts to your elders is a common way to show gratitude and respect. If you’re offered a gift from an older person, you should receive it with two hands and a bow. The same goes when offering them a gift.
Also, if you’re receiving a bowl of food, take it with both hands, and when serving drinks to your elders, hold the bottle with both hands.
Use honorific titles
Koreans have a complex system of honorific language called jondaemal. There are seven speech levels to show respect to your parents, grandparents, and people in higher positions. Younger people are supposed to use this language when addressing their elders, even when meeting sunbae (older students).
You should also give your seats to older people on the train if there’s no seat available. It’s also rude to sit on seats designated for the elderly, disabled, or pregnant women.
As mentioned, older people are valued for their age and life experience. So listening attentively and showing genuine interest in what they tell you is customary. Koreans have a tight-knit family circle where parents take great pride in seeing their kids educated, prosperous, and successful.
It’s worth noting that these forms of etiquette and deference toward your elders vary depending on the place, context, and players involved. These values are still widely held, but some have been relaxed in specific contexts, especially after the Korean War and adopting “Western values.”
That said, respecting your elders is a core part of Korean culture and is a mark of gratitude and courtesy.