Korean Culture Reference Guide

Greeting Norms


Korean culture is very focused on hierarchy, respect and etiquette.


  • Use the formal titles for the person (Mr., Mrs, Dr.) until you are told otherwise.

  • The bow or ‘jeol’ is the traditional greeting.

  • The younger or junior person in the greeting generally bows deeper.

  • When greeting someone to whom you would show a great deal of respect, (like your parents, grandparents, a teacher etc) you would give a  90 degree bow known as the ‘keun jeol’, (big bow).

  • Bowing is accompanied with a greeting, like hello, nice to meet you or even goodbye.



Shaking hands is more common now especially in South Korea. You would use both hands if you are the person of the lower position. If that seems awkward, extend the right hand and place your left hand as a support on the right wrist. You will still be bowing. But, the handshake may take place in conjunction with the bow or Women have the option of bowing instead of handshaking.


Giving or accepting something is done with both hands. So, giving a gift, handing money to the cashier, handing someone a business card; both hands are involved. Try to always use your right hand to do this. If this feels a little uncomfortable, try supporting the right forearm with your left hand.




Communication styles


Koreans tend to be more indirect in their communication styles. You need to read between the lines. Looking at facial expressions, body movement and gestures. So, even if the answer to the question is “no”, you’ll seldom hear a direct negative answer. There is an important emphasis on “face” 'chaeyoung', the dignity, building up, the self-worth of others and hierarchy. While in a conversation with someone, silence may mean that the person is taking the time to weigh the matter before answering, a sign of respect and politeness.


That being said, there is a really sweet concept called jeong. The warm feeling of community attachment, just wanting to do what's right and for someone you may develop a strong attachment to. So, if someone is asking what seem to be a lot of personal questions, (how old are you, questions about your family) there’s a reason for that.  They are more than likely trying to determine how to make you feel honored.




Personal space and touching


While it may be your custom to hug or give a pat on the back as a friendly gesture, Koreans are not accustomed to touching someone they don’t know. So at the initial meeting, hands to yourself. Once you’re on  more intimate terms, of course, interactions are more relaxed.


Now, in public the concept of persona space isn’t as precious as it is here. If you are in crowded spaces, don’t be surprised if you get a few elbows and bumps.  The excuse-me’s and sorry’s are assumed, but not necessarily expressed.




Eye contact and gestures


In general, direct eye contact with someone older or of higher status, especially if you are being reprimanded or scolded, (like at school or by a superior at work) is avoided as a sign of respect.


Of course, in business, eye contact can be seen as a sign of sincerity and authenticity.


No staring.


No one likes that.

Korean Population in the United States

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Korean Dialects

Korean is the official language of North and South Korea. The alphabet system for Korean is know as Hangungmal in South Korea and Chosŏn'gŭl or Chosonol in North Korea.  It is also listed as one of the official languages in the Yanbian Ethnic Korean Autonomous Prefecture, located in the People’s Republic of China.


In North Korea there are about 24 million speakers, and about 49 million speakers in South Korea. In 2010, there were 77.2 million native speakers. It is also widely spoken in China, with about two million Korean speakers.


In The United States, one million, Japan, ( about 500,000 speakers) Korean is also spoken in Russia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, about 500,000. There are, of course, several local dialects of the Korean language.


Since Korea is a mountainous country, split into many regions, they have developed, as would occur in any languages, several local dialects. Plus, splitting the nation in two would naturally add to the differences in the languages on both sides over time. Korean spoken outside of the Korean peninsula takes loanwords from the local language. Despite regional differences and some dialect specific vocabulary most speakers, although with some difficulty, understand one another. The exception to that may be the Jeju dialect. That dialect is different enough to be considered a separate language.


There are actually two official varieties of official Korean in Korea: Gyeonggi (meaning  “the area surrounding the capital”) dialect or the “Seoul dialect” and Pyongyang,  the primary dialect spoken in Northern Korean Diaspora. Both languages are regulated by their respective language Institutions. Did you know that Korea is the only country to have a holiday dedicated to its writing system? Yep, October ninth is Hangul Day in South Korea and January 15th is in Chosŏn'gŭl Day North Korea.




Gyeonggi


Spoken in Gyeonggi Province, Seoul, Incheon cities as well as southeastern Kaesong, North Korea

There are , in fact, three different variations of the dialect:

  • conservative

  • general

  • modified


Conservative


Spoken mainly by those born in Seoul before the 1970s. For some, sounds slightly like a North Korean accent.


General


Spoken by nearly all broadcast anchors also used for Korean language listening comprehension tests for high school students. It is considered the formal Korean accent.


Modified


Spoken by the younger generation and the lower-middle class middle aged people.  This variation of the Gyeoggi accent can be heard among younger anchors, especially when reporting on entertainment news.




Pyongan


Spoken in Pyongyang, Pyongan Province, Chagang Province and Liaoning, China. It influenced the standard language in North Korea, but the Gyoegang dialect was the foundation for both North and South Korea.

Because of the limit to the outside influences, sometimes thought of as  a “purer Korean" because instead of borrowing words from outside of North Korea, the tendency is to create their own words.


South Korean regional dialects:


  • Kyongsang

  • Chungcheong

  • Cheju Island

  • Jeolla

  • Gyeongsang

North Korean regional dialects:


  • Hamkyong

  • Pyongan

  • Hwanghae



Jeju


Spoken on Jeju Island off the coast of South Korea and in Korean communities in Osaka, Japan, many of its speakers are in their 70’s.


Has been referred to as the Jeju dialect and/ or the Jeju language.  Of the Koreans living in Japan, even there the younger members of the community speak Japanese.


It is not mutually understood by the other Korean dialects. It actually is considered by many  to be a separate language.


Since 2010, UNESCO has designated Jeju as critically endangered, meaning it is at risk of dying out as the majority of its speakers die off or start to speak other languages.


There are efforts to revitalize the language.




Koryomar


Ethnic Koreans, or the Koryo-saram, living in the areas of the former Soviet Union such as:

  • Russia

  • Uzbekistan

  • Kazakhstan

  • Tajikistan

  • Ukraine

  • Kyrgyzstan


The language descended from the Hamkyong and dialects of Northeastern Korean. It is not easily understood by other Korean dialect speakers. But, Koryo-mar speakers don’t really understand standard Korean either.


Many of the Koryp-saram speak Russian and not Korean, as their first language. Koryo-mar is not taught in schools and not used in the media.


It is now considered an endangered language.

Countries Where Korean is the Official Language

Korean is the official language in North Korea and South Korea but is also spoken in four countries as a mother tongue by part of the population:

There is a large population of Korean Americans living throughout the United States, as of the 2010 census, about 1.2 million.


Below are a list of the largest populations by state:

Of course, each of the 50 states is home to many Koreans but the ones listed stand out based on annual data from the American Community Survey published by the U.S. Census Bureau