Painfully proper, culturally cluelessKorea’s a modern place: it has multi-functional phones, futuristic architecture, sleek sportscars racing down elevated freeways and stylish women in couture gowns off New York runways. An entire generation of children grew up here but studied English abroad. Everything is Western and modern. Everything, that is, except Korea’s etiquette.
Left behind in the race toward modernization was the country’s strict Confucian code of manners. Confident adults may be elegantly attired and impeccably polite, but when forced to socialized with Westerners might want to flee to the nearest barbeque joint where they can guzzle stiff drinks in peace. Not that people here have no manners: socializing, after all, is what Koreans do best. But what passes for polite in one society shocks those from another society.
Westerners here, for instance, are sometimes baffled to find that their Korean guests run away as soon as the meal is finished. Conversely, Korean hosts want to tear out their hair when foreigners won’t leave the dinner party until past midnight. Guests who take their time leaving a party, the saying goes, do so because “their derrieres are too heavy.”
Excellent manners leave lasting impressions, but even the most casual of social niceties can wind up hurting someone, personally or professionally, if used in the wrong social setting. This is not to say that a guy who never pulls out a chair for his date is not actually likable, nor a woman who can’t tell the difference between English Breakfast and Earl Grey doesn’t know how to enjoy life.
A guest may do his or her best “when in Rome,” but seemingly insignificant things can become major blunders.
So how does Korean etiquette differ from Western manners?
To start with, young Korean children are formally given instruction in manners in classrooms ― the schools provide etiquette textbooks. One of these is the classic “Bareun Saenghwal,” which in English would mean, “Proper Living.” The book uses illustrations to teach children what to do in various social situations.
Most of the young readers, of course, have already learned much of this at home. Parents teach children how to show respect to others, appropriate ways to speak and how to use table utensils. Korean manners have been heavily influenced by Confucius, whose philosophy of personal and governmental morality emphasized “correct” social relationships, justice and sincerity. His ideas were fused into Korean culture at the start of the Joseon Dynasty in the 14th century. His principal teaching was of “li-yi,” which in Korean became “yeui,” meaning “civility.”
To this day, Confucius’s teachings are reflected in a slew of important functions such as funerals and weddings. A mourning period of three years for a dead parent, for example, is a legacy of this Confucian influence. The three years are supposed t symbolize the reciprocation of care that the son or daughter at birth received from their parent.
Most of Confucius’s teachings on daily behavior, however, were considered too abstract or even too philosophical by the Joseon dynasty aristocratic class, yangban. They therefore codified the philosophy into practical rules to fit the everyday lives of noble men and women.
Generations have adhered to Chinese phrases like “namnyeo budongseok,” which means “Men and women live separately,” by creating households and institutions in which the sexes rarely mingled. Although this code of conduct is no longer practiced in modern society, it partially explains why traditional Korean manners neither encouraged open relationships nor bothered to codify rules for dating.
But the code that has been hardest to pull out of Korean hearts is “namjon yeobi,” or in English, “Respect men, lower women.” Young Korean girls grow up being constantly reminded that it is their duty as women to obey male figures.
As seen in the 1970 textbook (this page’s illustration), the most prominent and important part of etiquette is the greeting, and no greeting is more important than one toward one’s elders or teachers. Respecting your elders is literally lesson one. Lesson two is table manners: emphasizing the presence of older dining companions, giving them total respect while lowering yourself in the process.
Times change and children do grow older, however, and as they do they pick up Western manners and mannerisms, and the change is often more superficial than serious. People learn how to use forks and knives, sip tea and sit down in a chair without hiking their legs up to sit Korean-style.
There is no local equivalent to Judith Martin, a.k.a. Miss Manners, who since 1978 has printed a regular newspaper column on how to be polite in situations like backing out of being a bridesmaid. That’s an advanced lesson in Western etiquette that requires a deep solid social philosophy to serve as groundwork.
Miss Manners, of course, is drawing off of a centuries-old concept of etiquette. In the 16th century, for example, the Renaissance author and diplomat Baldassare Castiglione published a tome titled, “Il Cortegiano” (“The Book of the Courtier”) detailing how sophisticated noblemen and ladies conducted themselves in social settings. The English edition of the book spread the concept of good manners to nobility. It told its readers, for example, how to properly apologize, how to handle blunders and how a gentleman should woo a lady. These practical tips were updated in France at the court of Louis XIV, consolidating the process of turning medieval chivalry into Western etiquette. These European rules emphasized sincerity and interpersonal social skills for all members of society.
Korean manners, in contrast, focus almost entirely on giving respect toward older males. This focus went unchallenged until the modern age, when Korea flung open its doors to the world, and most importantly, to the West.
The result was that only the form changed: men wore suits, went to work, women enrolled in schools and took on a variety of social roles that had previously been denied to them. But underneath the clothes and outside the cars, the Korean philosophy of life still pulsed in a beat that seemingly could not be reconciled with Western ways.
Well, Koreans are curious people and fast learners. At a lavish banquette recently organized by the broadcaster Dongah TV, to the host’s surprise, the majority of Korean guests that filled the ballroom kindly stayed after dessert and coffee. Some say they did so because of the night’s attractive door prizes, but others argued that Koreans had become used to socializing with strangers over wine ― finally suckling off the joie de vivre.
What did today’s Korean adults learn as kids in their homes and schools? Here are some examples:
Wash your hands before and after eating
Wait until the older dining companions start eating
Say “Jal meokketsseumnida” (“Thank you for the meal”) before eating
Hold the chopsticks properly
Do not hold the chopsticks and spoon together in one hand
Do not talk with food in your mouth or make noises while chewing food
Do not stir your food with the chopsticks
Do not eat rice with chopsticks
Offer food to elders first
Start the meal with a spoonful of soup
Do not leave chopsticks inside the rice bowl
Do not chew with your mouth open
Do not lean on the table with your elbows
Do not use chopsticks to pull the food closer
Ask for a personal plate if the food is too far away
Do not be picky with the dishes prepared on the table
When drinking alcohol with older companions, receive the cup with two hands and turn away from them to drink it
Wipe yourself with a napkin if your mouth or hands get dirty
Do not leave any leftover food on the table
When done eating, leave chopsticks and spoon on the table not in the bowl
Do not burp or yawn at the table
Do not leave the table until older dining companions finish their meal
Say “Jal meogeotsseumnida” (“Thank you for the meal”) after eating
Respect your elders by bowing first and using polite words
Learn the right bow to elders and ancestors for different occasions
Bow to someone your are being introduced to
Bow to the person you want to greet or thank
Do not offer a hand to shake if the person is older
Do not talk loudly in public places
Do not eat on the street
Do not wiggle your legs when seated on a chair or on the floor
Do not point at someone with your finger
Give up your seat on public transportation when your elders get on
When sitting on the floor, keep your legs bent, not stretched towards adults
Cover your mouth when coughing, sneezing or laughing
Do not cut in line in public
Do not hum, whistle or sing at night
When on the phone, do not hang up before the other hangs up
Say “Good morning” and “Good night” to your parents
Say “Hello” upon returning home
Say “Welcome home” when your parents return
Pay for any meal shared with those younger than you
On your birthday, invite friends and family members to nice meals
by Ines Cho