5 aspects of Korean culture that will feel strange to foreigners at the Olympics

This content is recommended for 30~60 minute sessions. Note that tutors may not be familiar with the content. Make sure you consult with your tutor before using this material. 


After a quick greeting, read the following article out loud. Your tutor will go over pronunciation if necessary.

[P1] The Winter Olympics have brought tens of thousands of people from around the world to Pyeongchang, South Korea. Not all of them will know the ins and outs of Korean culture, and if they’re not careful, they might find themselves in some embarrassing situations.

[P2] The anchors of NBC’s “Today” show got a crash course in Korean etiquette on Monday from Korean-American blogger Mina Oh, who taught them why it’s OK to ask a Korean person how old they are and why you should never leave your chopsticks standing vertically in a bowl of rice. Here’s what they discovered:

1. Age is really important to Koreans

[P3] Korean social hierarchy is based on age, so when two strangers meet, it’s important to establish which person is older. Often, the first question two strangers will ask each other is “What year were you born?”, Mina said. Age is reflected in the Korean language — Koreans use special honorifics and grammatical forms when speaking to elders. “Depending on how old you are, they’ll address you differently,” Oh said. “They’ll change the way they talk and the way they act towards you.”

2. Koreans bow to each other — and there are levels of bowing

[P4] According to Mina Oh, bowing is a sign of respect in Korean greetings. However, the way Koreans bow isn’t random — the deepness of the bow carries meaning. The deeper the bow, the more formal the situation. In casual settings, it’s appropriate to give a slight head nod coupled with a 15-degree bow. More formal situations like business meetings and interactions with authority figures demand a more formal bow — 45 degrees. Meanwhile, the most formal of the bows, a full 90-degree bend, is reserved for ‘deep apologies. On the other hand, if you’re greeting a close friend, there’s no bow necessary — a handshake or wave will do just fine.

3. You should never leave your chopsticks standing vertically in a bowl of rice

[P5] As noted by Mina, a typical Korean meal is eaten with metal chopsticks and a large metal spoon. When you’re eating, it’s important to remember not to leave your chopsticks standing vertically in your bowl. That’s an action associated with jesa, a Korean ceremony for honoring one’s ancestors, and it would be out of place at the dinner table. This display is symbolic of offering food to the dead.

4. Age dictates who gets to eat first

[P6] Here’s another sign of respect Koreans show elders — no one at the table is allowed to get started until the oldest person picks up their chopsticks or spoon.

5. Younger people pay their respects when they’re drinking, too

[P7] In Korea, the eldest person at the table gets first crack at drinking alcohol, as well. On top of that, only the eldest person can face the table when drinking — everyone else needs to turn their back on them when taking a sip.

Source: http://www.businessinsider.com/korean-culture-2018-2


Read the word/expression and definition out loud. Your tutor will go over anything you do not understand. Practice creating a sentence or two to make sure you know how to use the word/expression properly.

Vocabulary/ Expressions

Expression Definition
know (smth) inside out (expression) To know something thoroughly or down to the last detail
e.g. I’ve read this book so many times that I know it inside out.
crash course (n) a class in which a lot of information is taught in a short period of time
e.g. Before her trip, she took a crash course in Russian culture and history at the local university.
honorific (n) giving or expressing honor or respect
e.g. The title “Excellency” was used as an honorific.
be out of place (expression) To not be suited to or blend with a certain group or setting
e.g. That modern addition to the school is very out of place with all of the older buildings on campus.
first crack at (expression) the first opportunity at doing, fixing, or having something
e.g. I’ll take the first crack at it, and if I can’t do it, you can try.

Discussion Questions

Use the following questions as a guideline to help develop an interesting conversation with your tutor. Feel free to diverge from these suggestions if anything interesting comes up.

  1. Summarize the article in your own words.
  2. What are some other customs or etiquettes from your culture that you find interesting?
  3. Why do you think those customs have developed over time?
  4. Is having a strong tradition a good thing? Share your thoughts with your Cambly tutor!


Go over any new expressions or vocabulary that you learned today.

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