Social Protocols
Amid the dazzling technological advances South Korea has made claiming its rightful place as one of the world’s industrial powerhouses, along with the spectacular rise of K-Pop in many parts of the world, the century-old Neo-Confucianist traditions die hard. This is very evident in the core unit of society — the family.
If you are in Korea for the first time, every foreigner must be aware that maintaining social harmony is of paramount importance in Korean society.
Important Etiquettes
Casual meetings require a 30-45 degree angle bow which of the most common bow. The lower the bow, the higher the degree of respect is required.
  • Always greet with a short bow.
  • When you shake hands, reach out with your right hand with the left hand supporting the right.
  • Give and receive any object using both hands.
  • Speak basic Korean. They will be very pleased to hear you.
  • Take your shoes off at the door when entering any residence, temple, or guesthouse.
  • In a dining table, don’t start your meal until the eldest at the table starts first. Be mindful of the hierarchy.
  • When one pours a drink into your glass, take your turn to offer the same. Ensure one hand pouring is supported by the other hand.
  • When eating noodles soup, it is not impolite to slurp to show you are enjoying the food.
  • Don’t leave your chopsticks or spoon sticking up from your bowl of rice.
  • Place chopsticks and spoon back in their original position at the end of the meal.
  • When your mother-in-law asks you to serve the fruits, ensure the apples are peeled and sliced and served on a tray. Do not give a raw, unwashed, unsliced apple.
  • When you visit a friend’s house, your host will appreciate if you bring some small gift. Fruits or bottles of juice will do. Do not go empty-handed.
  • When a Korean friend treats you out for a meal, offer to foot the bill even if he/she refuses. It is still a gesture of courtesy.
  • Be respectful to elders at all times and practice modesty when talking to them.
  • When you are in business, giving out a business card is a cardinal rule.
Right hand pouring suju supported by the left hand is a gesture of respect and courtesy.
Social Structures
Maintaining social harmony is based on the rigid structure of fulfilling one’s social obligations made through a distinct set of relationships. These relationships are based on the “Five Cardinal Relationships” of Confucianism, where each relationship was related to a particular virtue:
  • between father and son there should be affection;
  • between ruler and minister there should be righteousness;
  • between husband and wife there should be attention to their separate functions;
  • between old and young there should be proper order;
  • and between friends there should be faithfulness.
In the Korean Confucian tradition, social position, gender, and age have important roles for maintaining social hierarchies. Women were particularly disadvantaged through the reinforcement of these relationships. They were expected to assume subordinate roles to men: fathers, husbands and sons
Reference: Korean Confucianism
A Korean family photographed between 1910-1920. Courtesy of the Library of Congress. Public Domain.
Women Within the Institution of Marriage
The overall objectives of marriage during the Joseŏn Dynasty were two-fold: to carry out ancestral rites and assure the succession of the paternal linage.
As such, all decisions pertaining to a marriage were made by the household and not the individuals themselves. Thus, marriage, which was perceived as a union of two families rather than two individuals, was seen as an opportunity to increase the family’s standing.
Ground for Divorce
Divorce during the Joseŏn Dynasty was usually governed under the so-called “seven sins” for wives contained in the Ta Ming Lu (大明律 The Great Ming Code) and by the sambulgŏ (三不去 three instances in which a husband could not divorce his wife). The seven sins for women were:
  • disobeying one’s parents-in-law;
  • failure to produce a male heir;
  • adultery;
  • excessive jealousy towards other women in the household;
  • serious disease;
  • stealing;
  • and talking excessively.
These so-called ‘sins’ were another means through which the patriarchal system was reinforced. The most common of these seven sins were the disobeying of one’s parents-in[1]law and the failure to produce a male heir. As such, the introduction of these seven sins became the lightning rod which was used to weaken the position of women.
Reference: Women’s Life During the Joseon Dynasty 
More about Hidden Korea
By tradition, women’s roles were confined to the home. From a young age, women were taught the virtues of subordination and endurance to prepare for their future roles as wife and mother. Women, in general, could not participate in society as men did, and their role was limited to household matters.
Inter-cultural Marriages
Inter-cultural marriages between Koreans and foreign nationals have altered Korea’s social fabrics. For most foreign women, especially those who have moved out of Korea and have been living overseas, family dynamics have changed for good. Korean cultural traditions have become a part of a story-telling and a reminiscence of a bygone era. For our children and grand children, it is and always will be a part of their heritage.
Korean women exchanging vows with foreign men have become common after the Korean War. (Photo credit: Vogue)