Korean Etiquette and Compliments

In the Korean culture it is considered virtuous to decline compliments. In the west we often believe that it is not bragging when we state facts that demonstrate accomplishments. This understanding of Korean cultural norms relates to humility as taught under doctrines of Confucius. Self-deprecation being akin to an art form. In fact, great centers of learning were set up from the Joseon era which trained those seeking enlightenment.

Conficious 1770

Those who dedicated their lives to the service of others through teaching elements necessary to uplift the people under Confucian principles. The method of speech also takes on honorific forms dependant on whether you are speaking (or gesturing) to a Superior or Senior, an associate, or someone younger, smaller or female.

Understanding Grace

The understanding grace is in providing each individual the respect deserved as a person of worth. No matter their perceived standing. This is further reflected in bowing. Whether by a slight nod of the head, or, an incline of the body in more formal situations. The offering of one’s hand extended with your arm extended supporting your offering at the elbow or wrist, indicating formality. Bear in mind that you do not offer the hand to your superior unless he does so first. And, women in Korea may not offer their hand at all, unless in certain business situations mandating such protocol.

If you are standing to listen as a Senior is speaking, your hands should remain at your sides. You may incline your head to listen intently and without interruption. You may speak by stating “Ah, geu-rae-yo?” Meaning; “Really?” or, “Is that right?” This can also be used as a statement; “Geu-rae-yo.” Meaning; “That’s right.” (Really). This lets the speaker know that you are intently listening. This phrase is not commonly known to Westerners learning the language.

It also helps to know whether it is polite to bring a gift when meeting your friends, boss or superiors. They may have a gift for you. Be sure to learn what it means to demonstrate your appreciation for time, effort and energy expended by others to make you feel welcome in their presence. This is a time honored tradition of “Doing to others as you would have them do unto you.”

Be aware of the seeming simplest things

When sitting down for a meal, it remains polite to wait until your seniors have begun to eat or drink. To cover your mouth when laughing, or using a toothpick. How you sit, either in kneeling or cross legged styles. The latter being reserved for elders or seniors. The understanding to be garnered from this kind of respect is in helping assure that no one loses “face” in whatever circumstance may be present.

Always compliment your host and hostess

A meal may not have pleased you. Maybe you felt it was not enough. What has been shared may be of great worth to them. Or, may have been all that could be afforded. Both parties generally know when something is perceived as less. However, the feelings engendered in friendship far outweigh disappointment that leads to one losing face. That follows suit when you are offered something to drink, or eat. It is polite to thankfully refuse the first, and even second time. Even as you may be extremely hungry or thirsty and would want to partake. You will be refused nothing within the power of your host to provide. So do not get impatient waiting for the right time to speak. For a meal and its refreshments are not superior to the nourishment you receive from making a true friend.

My students waited as our host spoke of the martial arts and their demonstration of skills that had taken place at the Kukkiwon. We were approximately 25 in all. His attendants there for a lunch as his guest. As he looked around, none of my students had taken a drink, nor commenced eating the meals that were being delivered. He asked them to begin. None did. He asked me why. I gratefully told him that we were waiting his commencement. He was both surprised and delighted at the fact that my students had been taught as they had. he knew we had not eaten since early and we declined to partake until all were served, our host leading the refreshment.

What is unsaid speaks just as loud

When a compliment is made to someone, the polite response is to gracefully negate the statement made, redirecting toward others. Such as the success of the team, school and staff. It is said that; “Virtue is the better part of valor.” In this great accomplishments are well known and need not be resurrected in all that is said. In this, when you step on the mat. When you present your students for review.

Even when you undertake the obligations of others in order to protect them from losing face. Eventually, others come to know your power and success. That you lead by example is enough.

Humility, based in a genuine interest in the welfare of others, its own reward.

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