1. Why did Koreans have two different age systems?
“How old are you?”. No question raises a woman’s hackles quite like this one does. In many cultures, it is considered impolite to ask someone’s age, but age is one of the first things native Koreans will want to know about you. The question isn’t meant to be offensive. It’s just the opposite. Koreans like to know your age simply because they want to ensure they use the appropriate speech level and manners while interacting with you.
In Korea, a newborn baby is considered one year’s old at birth because the nine months of pregnancy count as part of the child’s first year of life. Koreans also experience a collective birthday every Lunar New Year as their Korean age counts the number of years they’ve been alive as opposed to the length of time they’ve been alive. Your actual birthday may not be until December, but you will still age up as soon as the Lunar New Year arrives. Since the Korean age can add one to two years to your international age, older K-Pop fans may not be too happy about this!
However, on June 28, 2023, Korea officially switched to the international age system as the default age system, meaning all Koreans instantly became a year or two younger! Korea already used the international age system for several things, including the age limit for drinking alcohol or buying tobacco products.
2. Why does Korea have different speech levels?
In Korea, your age not only influences how others will interact with you, but it also affects how you speak and are spoken to. The Korean language has seven speech levels, but luckily for Hangul newbies, only three of these levels are used in everyday life: formal (합쇼체 or “hapsyoche“), polite (해요체 or “haeyo“), and informal (해체 or “haeche“). Generally speaking, the longer the speech is, the more polite it is.
Formal speech is used when you are speaking to your senior, an important person of high rank, or a stranger. Polite speech is used when talking to someone you are friendly with but not close friends with, or it is used with co-workers when in a non-business setting. Informal language is only used when speaking to someone a few years your junior, a sibling, a close friend, or a significant other. Speaking informally to someone who does not fit into those categories is insulting and disrespectful.
3. Why do Koreans ask personal questions?
Personal questions like “How old are you?”, “how much do you earn?” and “Are you married” are considered inappropriate in many cultures and can catch many people off-guard. While these inquiries may seem offensive to some people, it’s just an everyday part of Korean etiquette. Koreans do not ask these questions to be rude or nosey, but rather to discern their status in comparison to the person they are talking to in order to avoid giving offense. The answers to this questions, in addition to your age, are intended to keep all interactions smooth and respectful.
4. Why is military conscription mandatory?
In many countries, especially western countries, military enlistment is voluntary. Not so, in Korea. Mandatory conscription has existed since 1957 and requires male citizens between the ages of 18 and 35 to perform between 18-21 months of compulsory military service, depending on the branch. Women do not have to enlist, but can voluntarily enlist if they wish. Enlistment has become a societal and social rite of passage for Korean men, and it remains mandatory due to South Korea’s on-going tensions with North Korea.
5. Why do Koreans bow?
Bowing is a core part of social etiquette in Korea, as is true of many Asian countries. Each bow has a different meaning, purpose, and context, which can be initially confusing to people who may not be used to bowing outside of, say, a piano recital. In Korea, bowing is a way to show respect, say thank you, sorry, hello, and good-bye.
Just as Korea has formal and informal speech, there are various levels of bows. Simply put, the deeper the bow, the deeper the respect. The most respectful bow is keunjeol (큰절 or “big bow”). It is only used for very formal occasions and to show the highest level of respect. For example, Koreans give their elder family members a big bow on Lunar New Years. Men will also give a big bow to their fiancé’s parents when they ask for their fiancé’s hand in marriage.
6. Why are blood types important?
According to Korean tradition, your blood type can determine your core personality traits, similar to Zodiac signs in astrology. This includes everything from introversion/extroversion to your compatibility with your future soulmate.
Type A’s best traits are their punctuality, perfectionist tendencies, and various other qualities associated with being a good student. Type B’s best traits are their creativity, flexibility, individualism, and passionate nature. Type Os are believed to embody the positive traits of self-confidence, ambition, leadership, and general “people” skills. Type AB is associated with rationality and control, and are known for being the “cool” types.
Naturally, fans love to find out their idols’ blood types in the hopes of learning more about them!
7. Why do Korean couples wear matching outfits?
Matching outfits among couples in the western world are often considered excessive, even tacky, but Koreans love to flaunt their couple status. Couples in Korea often wear matching outfits shirts, jeans, hats, even underwear, when they go out on dates!
8. Why do Koreans wear face masks in public?
In western countries, medical face masks are rarely seen outside of hospitals. As such, many people are under the impression that mask-wearers have a highly contagious cold or flu, and they will avoid these mask-wearers like the plague they assume they have.
In Korea, face masks are far more common and have even become a fashion accessory. Although some mask-wearers put on their masks to avoid spreading germs, many Koreans wear them to guard against the harmful effects of fine dust. Fine dust can irritate the eyes, nose, and throat, and its particles can even damage your lungs and attack your immune system. As such, wearing face masks during dust season is a must.
Celebs also wear masks to hide their bare faces from the public or to keep their anonymity. Even after the Covid pandemic, many celebrities and regular citizens continue to wear their masks outside to prevent potential airborne illnesses or just because they didn’t want to do their makeup!
9. Why is poop cute?
In Korea, dung is fun. It can be an adorable plushie, a decorative item, and even a lovable cartoon character. This strikes many non-Koreans as strange.
Although there are many theories about where this love for poop originated from, many believe that it may have started centuries ago. Golden-hued droppings have always represented wealth and good fortune in Korean culture. If you dream of poo, you may win the lottery!
At one time, poop also played an important role in traditional medicine. Both animal and human droppings made their way into various remedies that were believed to heal everything from infections to broken bones.
10. What is up with aegyo?
Aegyo, or acting cute, has become very popularized, largely thanks to K-Pop, but has been a part of the everyday culture for a long time. Aegyo is can be an endearing way to charm people, if done in the right way.
Unfortunately, aegyo is an art that not everyone excels at.
11. Why do Koreans do crime scene re-enactments?
Anyone who has ever seen a crime K-Drama like I Can Hear Your Voice has witnessed this Korean pre-trial legal practice. Citizens who are suspected of committing violent crimes, but have not yet been tried for them, are forced to re-enact their alleged crimes while bound by either ropes or handcuffs. This re-enactment is open to the public, who are allowed to insult and shout at the suspect. This gives the public a cathartic outlet for their anger toward the suspect, and adds additional psychological pressure on the suspect. While not all Koreans approve of this practice, it is still favoured by the majority.
12. Why is social drinking so important?
In Korea, it is common practice to go out drinking with your coworkers. While many leading companies are trying to curb this tradition, plenty of bosses still bring their teams out for a night of soju drinking and socializing. It’s a way for the higher-ups to show their appreciation for their employees and drinking is also seen as a way of loosening up and bonding with the people around you. This can sometimes be problematic for people who can’t or do not like to drink alcohol if the people around them are not understanding. Luckily, nowadays, non-drinkers are far more common and accepted than they were in the past.
Drinking in Korea also comes with its own etiquette that affects everything from how you hold the bottle, to who pours it, to who drinks first. The rules may seem complicated to foreigners at first, but can easily be learned with enough practice. These rules apply for any kind of beverage, not just alcoholic ones.