The best-known expression as a sign of respect in South Korea is the bow. How deeply you bow is related to a person’s social status and seniority. If the head and upper body are bent down 45 degrees, this is to be understood as the highest expression of respect. A normal bow for greeting or saying goodbye is about 15 degrees. You can also bow a little deeper to express your respect or your satisfaction with a conversation.
Another gesture of special appreciation is when you hold your right wrist when shaking hands with your left hand or hand over or receive a business card or gift in this way. Alternatively, you can use both hands, but never just the left hand. The use of the left hand is considered rude in South Korea.
It should also be noted that physical contact is rather inappropriate in South Korean business. Always keep a proper distance from your conversation partners and avoid gestures such as a friendly pat on the back.
Caution must also be exercised when it comes to eye contact. While we associate a direct look with honesty and sincerity, intensive eye contact is perceived as offensive and even disrespectful in South Korea. Above all, never look higher ranking and older people directly in the eye.
If your South Korean interlocutor turns his gaze away, try not to interpret this as disinterest, dishonesty or insecurity and at the same time make sure that you also look sideways past him. But don’t worry, South Koreans with international experience are also aware of these differences.
Smiling and giggling
Asians are known to smile and giggle a lot and this is also true of South Koreans. Usually, it is a sign of discomfort and an unwillingness to respond. If you are explaining something in a training course or product demonstration, for instance, and your audience giggles a lot, this is an indication that not everything has been understood. It can be very disconcerting to Westerners if, depending on the situation, they expect a more affected or serious facial expression and instead look into smiling faces.
However, for South Koreans smiling does not mean that they take things lightly. Smiling and giggling in difficult situations is an expression of stress. At the same time, it is an attempt to restore harmony on the interpersonal level through friendliness.
Long breaks in conversation and silences are another special feature of South Korean non-verbal communication that foreigners need to get used to. If nothing is said for a long time, this is not negative or unpleasant for South Koreans. On the contrary, silence is an expression of politeness and respect. What has been said before is thus valued and sufficient time is given to the other person to give an equally important answer.
South Koreans do not use a lot of gestures and thus often appear stiff, reserved and formal. Pay particular attention to the following differences in gestures, which can quickly lead to misunderstandings:
- Frequent nodding only means that you are being listened to attentively. It does not signify approval.
- Waving with the arm stretched away from the body is a no, not a greeting.
- If you wish to wave another person towards you, do so with your arm stretched out to shoulder height and your handheld down.
- Do not point at people with your finger, but only with your whole hand. The index finger must not be used for pointing in South Korea.
- And don’t put your index finger on your forehead when you think about something, or tap your forehead with your index finger when a new idea comes to mind. South Koreans understand these gestures to mean “You are crazy”.
- Shoulder shrugging to say “I don’t know” is completely unknown in South Korea.