Although we live in an age of increasing globalization, there are certain cultural differences that persist across borders—it’s what makes traveling and exploring the world so interesting. Every year, millions of people visit America for business or recreation. In an average year, this group includes over 1 million Koreans! What do they find most intriguing or even slightly odd about America? Read on to discover 10 things that take Koreans by surprise when they visit the US.
1. Everyone says “thank you” for every little thing.
Especially in larger cities, Americans tend to use the phrase “thank you!’ on a frequent basis. For example, when a clerk hands over change at the store, the customer gives thanks. This isn’t the Korean way. It’s not that Koreans are impolite—far from it! It’s just that Korean cities tend to be even more densely populated than their US equivalents, and everything moves at a faster pace.
2. The buildings are so much shorter than those in Korea.
Most people in Korea live in high-rise apartments, reflecting the fact that space is at a premium. Of course there are very densely-populated areas in America and more rural spots in Korea, but as a rule, Koreans are more accustomed to living and working in buildings that are much taller than those in the average American town.
3. The portions seem huge.
America has an international reputation for serving large portions of food at restaurants and diners. Koreans, like many foreign visitors, are frequently surprised to discover how much value the typical American meal offers.
4. Students spend far fewer hours in school compared with Korean youngsters.
It isn’t uncommon for students to spend several hours more in school each day in Korea, compared with those in the American education system. In addition, students often attend after-school activities, like sports and or programs for learning additional languages.
5. American employees work fewer hours.
Americans work long hours—no doubt about it. However, Korea is notable for its “work hard, play hard” culture. On average, Koreans work 10–15% more hours per week than Americans. There is also a more ingrained culture of post-work socialization.
6. In America, cross-generational friendships and relationships between employees and managers are more common.
In general, Koreans consider it appropriate to stick to friends of one’s own age rather than those of other generations. Traditionally, there is a great sense of respect towards elders and those in higher-up positions at work. While a typical American employee may be on first-name terms with their line managers and may even consider them a friend, a Korean worker would refer to this person by their title instead.
7. The rules for showing cleavage are different.
Although too much cleavage is frowned upon in America, it is quite acceptable for women to show some in most social settings (within the realms of good taste and decency, of course). However, this would not be appropriate in Korea.
8. Tattoos and piercings are more common and acceptable in America.
Tattoos and piercings can be seen across most parts of the US, and are perceived as a means of self-expression. Koreans, however, are less likely to get inked or to wear body jewelry. This stems from a deeply-ingrained cultural difference. Traditionally, American culture has been more pro-individualism, whereas Korean culture has historically valued conformity and group harmony.
9. People say “Bless You!” when someone sneezes.
There is no equivalent of ‘Bless You!’ in Korea. In general, if someone sneezes, it isn’t considered a big deal.
10. Tipping is expected in America.
When eating out in an American restaurant, standard etiquette demands that you tip the wait staff 15–20%, depending on the quality of service received. This is novelty for Korean visitors—tipping is not a regular or expected phenomenon in their home country.
So if you ever find yourself talking to a Korean visitor, don’t be surprised if you discover some cultural differences! As long as everyone remains respectful of this diversity, such differences can only make the world a more fascinating place in which to live.
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