Going to Korea? 4 Cultural Differences to Prepare for

If you’re planning on moving to South Korea to study, live or work, here are four of the main cultural differences you should be aware of. Read on to find out what to expect, and how you can prepare for the culture shock.

Anthony Weineck - ProfileAnthony Weineck, a three-year veteran in Korea, shares all the weird and wonderful things about living in Korea that’ll make you go “wow!”, “why!?”, and “What is that I don’t even-?”. Originally from Cape Town, South Africa, Anthony loves kimchi, hates crowds, and thinks 박근혜 should find a better role model than Margaret Thatcher.

Moving to another country is always going to entail some culture shock, but moving to Korea, which has only in the last 30 years emerged as a major world power, and remains culturally insular and monolithic, can seem more like moving to an entirely new world. Korea is a fascinating country, but it remains largely unknown to the western world, overshadowed by its neighbors, Japan and China.

This means that getting to grips with the cultural differences can be a difficult task, and the culture shock can be overwhelming. There are things you can do to smooth the transition, though, like speaking to someone knowledgeable about the country, arranging some creature comforts before you arrive, and learning the language.

Other than that, read about these four major cultural differences between Korea and western countries, what those differences mean to you, and how you can deal with them.

Seoul has the highest population density of any city in the developed world

A Crowded Street in Seoul

1. Korea is crowded

A little over 50 million people live in South Korea, a country about the same size as Portugal or the state of Indiana, and most of it is covered in mountains. As a result, even the smallest town in South Korea (save those set aside by law as “slow” cities) is forced to build upward and the capital, Seoul, has a population density twice that of New York.

[one_half]The Positives:

  • Amazing public transport – fast, clean, ubiquitous: you can get anywhere, cheaply, and you don’t need to drive in the crazy traffic!
  • Restaurants and convenience stores are always within walking distance.
  • The fastest Internet in the world, and the highest Internet penetration rate: somehow over 100%
  • A community of foreigners is almost never more than a 10-minute bus ride away[/one_half]

[one_half_last]The Negatives:

  • An often severe lack of personal space, especially on public transport
  • Crazy traffic, with the resultant high levels of pollution
  • Sensory assault: lights! sounds! adverts! everywhere! [/one_half_last]

Dealing with it:

Be zen. People are going to bump into you on the subway; stupidly dressed salespeople will force fliers into your hands on the street; and scooters will nearly knock you over as they tear down the sidewalk. Find a quiet place at work, or where you live, and take some time to center yourself when it all feels a bit much. Oh, and keep your eyes open for those scooters: Seriously, they’re a hazard.


2. Korea will be lost in translation

Korean doesn't have a lot of sounds that English does. Like "z".

Dear Korea, by Jen Lee

Korean and English are very different languages: structurally, phonetically, rhythmically, there’s almost no similarity between them at all. Additionally, there are sounds in English that Korean simply doesn’t have (“v”, “f”, “th”: basically all the fricatives) and has to approximate. This makes English a very difficult language for Koreans to learn (and Korean only slightly less hard for English speakers) so, despite the long, long hours that most Korean kids (and adults) will spend studying English, and despite the millions of dollars the government has spent bringing native English teachers over to Korea, very few Koreans actually speak English with any degree of fluency.

[one_half]The Positives:

  • You have an opportunity to learn a new, world language that’s in rising demand
  • You can enjoy the ambience of a crowded space without having to tune out the loud political opinions of someone two tables over
  • Your language skills are a valuable commodity, and you can earn a lot of money simply by being literate
  • Koreans will actively befriend you, because they want to practice their conversation skills

[/one_half][one_half_last]The Negatives:

  • Everyday communication becomes a challenge
  • If you are the only English-speaker at your workplace, it can be very alienating
  • Any complex tasks, like opening a bank account, dealing with a landlord, or setting up a phone contract, can be nearly impossible without a translator
  • Koreans will actively pursue you, because they want to practice their conversation skills[/one_half_last]

Dealing with it:

Learn some Korean, or at least the alphabet, Hangeul. You’d be surprised how many billboards and shop names are just Koreanized English words. Make some English-speaking Korean friends and, whenever your charades skills aren’t up to the task of, say, opening a bank account, give them a call, hand the phone over to the clerk, and sit back while someone else takes care of it.


ROKetship3. Korea is caught between the old and the new

One of the downsides of Korea’s rapid modernization is that the older generation are people born before the Korean war, raised in a strictly patriarchal, Confucian society. They lived through a massively popular dictatorship and accompanying industrial expansion to the relative wealth and ease of recent years. In short, it has changed too quickly and is now caught between a rapidly liberalizing youth and a staunchly conservative older generation.

Things are changing though, however slowly, as can be seen in the election of Korea’s first female president, Park Geun Hye (박근혜), in early 2013.

[one_half]The Positives:

  • Respect for the elderly is deeply ingrained; age equals seniority
  • Koreans work incredibly hard and are excellent team players
  • Foreigners in Korea are generally treated like guests

[/one_half][one_half_last]The Negatives:

  • Korean society is very conformist, and individual and creative thinking is not encouraged
  • Social structures remain very patriarchal
  • Attitude towards clothing and body decorations (tattoos, piercings) are highly conservative[/one_half_last]

Dealing with it:

Unfortunately, if you’re a girl you’re going to get the worst of this, especially if you’re outside of Seoul: Leave at home any clothing that reveals your shoulders or has a plunging neckline, and don’t smoke in public. Everyone else, just treat your superiors and the elderly with deference, and you’ll get along fine.


4. Korea is proud

Ownership of Dokdo Islands, known as Takeshima to the Japanese, is a major point of pride to Korea

Dokdo Islands, courtesy of Wikimedia

The Korean people have a history going back millennia. They have lived on the same peninsula since at least 2000BC, suffering wars, invasions, occupations, dictators, and revolutions. Squashed between their boisterous neighbors, China and Japan, they are often overlooked and dismissed despite a wealth of culture as deep as either.


  • A wealth of temples, museums, and cultural artifacts to explore and appreciate
  • A fascinating history and unique people


  • Some narrow-mindedness, particularly toward the Japanese[/one_half_last]

Dealing with it:

Go spend a night in a Buddhist temple, stroll around the beautiful palaces of Gyeongbokgung, hike along the wall of Bukhan Mountain Fortress for some gorgeous views and lush scenery, and then, when the school kids come with their survey to ask “Do you know that Dokdo belongs to Korea? Yes or no?”, ask them “why?”