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Faux Pas and Cultural Differences to Know When Stationed in South Korea

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Understanding cultural differences is key to making the most of your time in South Korea. Here are some tips to help you adjust smoothly and avoid common faux pas.

Views on North Korea

Opinions about North Korea can vary widely among South Koreans. While polls show that a majority of Koreans have a less-than-favorable view of their neighbors to the north, the extent to which Korean dislike or distrust their neighbors varies greatly based on their location within Korea, their family history, their political views, and their age demographic.

Like most people, many South Koreans are probably too busy worrying about their careers and personal life to give North Korea much thought. While North Korea and the safety of the Korean peninsula occasionally make headlines, Korean's have a complex view of the situation at hand. Some Koreans hope to see North Korea succeed as an entirely separate country, while others could want to see the two nations reunited and hope for better ties.

Conversations about North Korea can be sensitive, so it's best to tread lightly. When in doubt, it's okay to steer clear of the topic altogether.


Sarcasm doesn't translate well in Korea. What’s funny back home might be confusing or taken literally here. Stick to straightforward humor to avoid misunderstandings. Save the sarcasm for when you're chatting with fellow expats.

Personal Space

Most people are aware of the lack of personal space in Korean culture, but Korean society views personal space is quite differently than in the United States. You might feel someone standing very close to you in line, but don't take it personally—it's just the norm here. Korea’s fast-paced 'bali-bali ’ culture means people are always in a hurry. Embrace the hustle, save the small talk for later, and you'll adjust in no time.

Direct, or Overly Personal Questions

“Are you married?”, “Do you have a boyfriend/girlfriend?”. While in the west these questions can be a preamble to a romantic invitation, in Korea it's often just a simple question asked out of curiousity. They also often probe to find out where they stand in relation to the other individuals--age and status being an important part of how Koreans address one another.. Some of questions, like "How tall are you?" "How much do you earn?" or "How old are you?" can be surprising at first, but most Koreans will understand if you choose not to answer.

Eye Contact

Eye contact has different rules here. While Americans see it as a sign of respect, some Koreans might avoid it, especially with superiors or strangers. It’s not meant to be rude; it’s just a cultural difference. During a casual conversation, full eye contact is generally okay, but don’t be put off if you find people avoiding your glance when speaking to you (or when taking a shot). 


Pointing directly at someone with your index finger is a no-no. It’s seen as rude, almost like blaming someone. Instead, gesture with your whole hand—it’s much more polite. This small change can make a big difference in how you’re perceived.


Koreans often avoid direct refusals to save face. Instead of saying "no," they might hesitate or give a vague response. Pay attention to these subtle hints. This is based on the concept of “nunchi,” or social sense—if someone is hesitating to agree with you, take the hint.

Being aware of these cultural differences will make your stay in South Korea much more enjoyable. Keep an open mind, and you'll find it easier to connect with locals. Areas closer to the base will be more accustomed to these cultural differences, so people are generally understanding if you make a mistake. If someone does something that makes you uncomfortable, remember it’s often just a cultural misunderstanding. Enjoy the adventure!

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