Top Cultural Differences between South Korea and the USA

We have now been in South Korea for 1 full month! So naturally, it’s time to answer the big questions like what exactly have we learned? In addition to learning to count to 1,000 in Korean and finding out it means nothing because the Korean language mixes Chinese numbers with Korean numbers, and that Korean Fried Chicken is quite possibly the greatest food in the world, we now bring you our top 15 cultural differences between America vs. South Korea.

15 Huge Cultural Differences:
America vs. South Korea
한국과 미국의 문화 차이 상위 15 위

In no particular order…

1. Koreans Love Babies

Our #1 top cultural difference from America vs. South Korea is that everywhere we go in Korea we are literally accosted by strangers wanting to hold our baby, touch our children’s faces, give them candy, money or all of the above.

At first it was really disconcerting because in America we call this kidnapping. Now, we find it’s actually really nice to eat a meal in peace.

The Popsicle Store in Incheon, Korea
Isn’t she the cutest?

Culturally, Korean’s are choosing careers over babies so there are fewer and fewer families with children throughout the country and their population is dwindling.

To encourage couples to have more children, or children at all, the government has begun adding child friendly accommodations everywhere.

  • Every restroom has a plush child’s toilet seat in at least one of the stalls for little ones.
  • There are helium balloon vending machines in shopping areas.
  • All restaurants are outfitted with comfortable, and sometimes even cushioned, baby seats.
  • There are mother’s lounges with baby cribs, rocking chairs, high chairs, changing stations, free baby wipes, etc at shopping malls!

The Korean families who do choose to have kids spoil them rotten. Kids live in the lap of luxury driving a Benz while Mom flies behind on an attached segway.

No child walks here, they all traverse the city on fancy, decked out, light up scooters.

They watch ipads from their left eye and a phone from their right during meal times.

Lady riding her kids stroller
This picture is blurry because no joke, this mama is riding her kids stroller/scooter

Around every corner you’ll find a kid cafe; a place for children to play or be entertained for hours. There are art cafes, sports cafes, lego cafes and even a Baby Jjimjilbang. For about $10 you can send your kid to a two hour day camp where they can have free babysitting, counselors and someone to play with them in a safe place.

Champion Sports Kids Play Area in Korea at Triple Street in Incheon
Rock climbing wall at Champion Kid Cafe

2. The Bowl Cut is Trending

Yes, by bowl cut we mean hairstyles. We mean Lloyd Christmas. We mean putting a literal bowl on your head and cutting any of the hair that isn’t covered. Our #2 cultural difference between America vs. South Korea is fashion.

In general, fashion is an important part of the culture here in Korea. We never see anyone that isn’t dressed up with their hair done and makeup on. Including the men.

Men may not be wearing eyeshadow and mascara but they are dressed to the nines.

High waist polyester pants that fall right above the ankle are a popular fashion look here, and not for the women – for the men. Add socks and slip on sneakers with a compressed heel and you’ll fit right in.

I’m not sure why Korean’s don’t just wear sandals, since they all walk on the heels of their shoes. It’s an interesting phenomenon.

Maybe because in most Asian cultures, including Korea, you remove your shoes constantly. In America, many people wear their shoes indoors, but here people even have separate house shoes, and separate shoes for the bathroom! That is a major cultural difference between America vs. South Korea.

3. Slow Pace

Koreans like to go at a slower pace than American’s, a much slower pace. There is no rushing from activity to activity or scurrying through the marketplace to hurry and finish your grocery shopping. Everything is done at a leisurely pace.

Standing in the middle of the street to offer directions or have a conversation is no big deal, even if you are in the way of traffic.

The people in this culture also love to sleep everywhere. You’ll find them on every public couch or public lounge chair in a public place fast asleep. Totally unencumbered by the fact that they are in a public setting. As for cultural differences between America vs. South Korea, the only people sleeping in public in America are homeless.

Cultural Differences America vs. South Korea
Is this more comfortable than a bed, idk?

4. There Will Be No Touching

One thing you never do here is touch your food with your bare hands. Not if you are preparing it, and not if you are eating it. In fact, there are a lot of things you don’t touch, but we haven’t quite gotten the gist of the do’s and don’ts.

One thing that is ok to touch, however, are children’s faces.

Everyone touches our children’s faces and smooshes their cheeks. Even a girl just a few years older than Eclair would not stop coming up to her at the airport playground, and rubbing Eclair’s cheeks with her fingers.

Wet wipes are a staple of society here. You’ll find them at every single check-out register, bathrooms, aisles of stores, randomly on counters in random places and even in taxis. Many items are the grocery store have added wet wipes to the item to incentivize shoppers to buy one brand over another. We found them on a package of batteries.

Top Cultural Differences between South Korea and the USA
I can clearly see I need to capture a better photo of this phenomenon

Yet, the only thing Korean’s may consume more of than wet wipes, are plastic gloves. Plastic gloves are used for eating, for doing nails, for handing produce – you name it. In America, we just touch everything, except for children’s faces, and that is a huge cultural difference between America vs. South Korea.

5. Miniaturized and Individually Packaged

Everything here comes individually packaged, and not just the usual suspects.

In America you would expect to purchase a bag of miniature candy bars, and each candy bar would be individually wrapped.

Here, you can expect that for oreos, cookies, biscuits. Everything is ready made for taking on the go and convenient to do so. I guess maybe they don’t consume an entire package of Oreo’s in one sitting like we do in America?

6. Kimchi Please

You know Kimchi is a big deal to Korean culture when Netflix makes a movie called Always Be My Maybe and the major plot point revolves around the main character’s trendy restaurant Kimchi menu item.

Kimchi is a fermented cabbage dish that is almost always colored red and always extremely spicy. They put it on everything from hot dogs to donuts. When it comes to cultural differences between America vs. South Korea, you could say America’s Kimchi is ketchup. At least they are both red!

Kimchi courtesy of Korean Bapsang

7. Cake For Every Meal

Yes, you read that right, Korean’s put Kimchi in donuts. In fact, they put everything in donuts from kimchi to bean curd to mashed potatoes to crab salad. The only thing we haven’t found in a donut is Bavarian cream.

Korean’s love donuts. There are deep fried dough shops around every corner. They have tables set up outside grocery stores so you can buy donuts both inside and outside the grocery store; whether that is because you forgot to get the donuts or you didn’t get enough donuts?

I don’t know.

Top Cultural Differences between South Korea and the USA
Crab Salad Donut with sugar

If you aren’t buying a donut, don’t worry, they sprinkle everything sugar on everything from garlic bread to corn dogs.

Really, this isn’t all that culturally different than America except for the fact that donuts in America are sweet, and donuts in South Korea are used like sandwich bread.

8. Please and Thank You

From speaking to writing to interacting with everyone else in their culture, formalities are high in importance in South Korea.

There is no word for you. Everyone has a title, and age distinction is very important when addressing someone. There are different greetings not just for saying hello and goodbye, but for saying goodbye if you are the person leaving, or if the person is leaving and you are staying.

trump and north korea
Oh c’mon, that’s pretty funny

Formalities are a pretty clear indicator of cultural differences between America vs. South Korea. In America we are typically courteous to the elderly, but that’s where the buck stops.

9. I Can’t Understand You

Either most Korean’s speak as much English as we speak Korean, or they are too embarrassed to speak English. In either case, there is a huge language barrier.

We have found ourselves mimicking our Korean friend’s universal language tools for the word no multiple times a day by crossing our arms to make an X with body language. If you attempt to have a conversation with a Korean, despite indicating you don’t understand what they are saying, they will continue to talk to you as if you understand complicity.

Accurate Korean ₩ prices too

The only time they recognize that you don’t understand their language is when it comes time to pay. Every shop and restaurant utilizes calculators. Not for calculations, but to display the total price that you owe.

Come to think of it, this really isn’t a cultural difference between America vs. South Korea at all. Most Americans speak only English, and expect everyone else to speak it as well.

10. English is Misspelled

In the year 2019 in the global world we live in, are there not at least a few hundred thousand people in the world that are fluent in both Korean and English? While you can find English translations on most signs and menus, words are frequently spelled incorrectly.

We have no idea if this is a cultural difference between America vs. South Korea actually. Maybe things are spelled wrong all the time in other languages in America and I just have no clue.

11. Say Cheese

The only thing Korean’s might like more than wet wipes, plastic gloves and other people’s babies are taking photos. Every situation from mundane to exciting is viewed as an opportunity to document the past, present and future.

This isn’t a generation Instagram thing, this is a cross generational phenomenon. We see Grandma posing just as often as we see sultry teenagers.

Exploring Waterfalls on Jeju Island with Kids
They did not want my kid in their photo, they told me to go ahead when I tried to wait for them

The amount of time it takes to do anything, adding to the slow pace of life here, is in direction correlation to the number of times one has to stop to wait for other people to take photos. Korean’s are unabashedly public about this practice.

When visiting the Cheonjeyeon Waterfalls a single woman asked me to take her photo in front of the falls; she wanted a full length photo facing the camera, a shot waist up facing the camera and a contemplative shot of the back of her head whilst she admired the waterfall.

Koreans don’t care if other people take photos of them either. When we first arrived to Korea we were both very protective of other people taking Molasses to play with her, and shy about taking photos of them with her. Now, seeing how common practice it is, we have no qualms about either.

Caribbean Bay Family Day
See the boyfriend in the back taking photos of her with MY baby?

Korea’s Largest Indoor Amusement Park even has an attraction devoted singularly to taking selfies and photos. In America we are definitely following this cultural trend, but Grandma’s not quite there yet.


12. Fast Food

Have you ever ordered food through Uber Eats or Door Dash in America? This is one of the most obvious cultural differences between America vs. South Korea. The last time we were in San Francisco we waited over an hour for food to be delivered to our hotel.

In Incheon, South Korea, we waited less than 10 minutes.

The travel distance was the same, but the difference is that in South Korea the courier is on a specialized food scooter and nothing is going to get between them and delivering your food.

We’ve seen these scooters zip up and down the street moving between the sidewalk to the road, up and down ramps, weaving in and out of pedestrians and traffic and paying no mind to the stop lights. Whether these food delivery companies have software solutions like Lytx to manage their fleet of vehicles or not is something I don’t really know, but they do their job pretty well!

Food Delivery South Korea
Gangnam Welcome Street

These messengers pay no mind to a single thing in the universe other than getting to you; it’s like the Amazing Race for food delivery service.

13. Shop ‘till You Drop

Shopping is a life form in South Korea.

Every which way you look there is another giant mall being built next to the three other giant shopping malls on the block next to it. Underground tunnels connect the shopping malls from Triple Street to Hyundai Premium Outlets to Home Plus and we are watching as they build a 4th one.

Every single neighborhood has either an outdoor market, or an underground market. In 24 days of being in South Korea we’ve found Bupyeong Underground Market, Sinpo International Market, Namdaemun Market, Dongmun Market and each one is a vast and complex web of wares.

Namdaemun Market in Seoul, South Korea
Namdaemun Market in Seoul

Fridays are street fair assemble day, and Mondays are street fair disassemble day. Without fail the outdoor courtyards that link the above three giant shopping malls are filled with different vendors peddling their goods, offering samples, and selling items for the locals to shop, shop, shop.

Even though South Korea doesn’t have Amazon, they’ve got GMarket the e-commerce equivalent offering grades instead of prime based on your shopping habits. When it comes to cultural differences between America vs. South Korea both are centered around consuming. In South Korea though, shopping is life.

14. Wall E

It’s common in Asia for garbage to be sorted according to trash, compost and recycling, but South Korea takes this to an entirely new level. At Shake Shack there is a waste bin for your shake cup, your shake lid and your shake straw.

In regards to garbage, the cultural differences between America vs. South Korea are vast.

At your home in South Korea, garbage bins are not lined with a waste liner bag because garbage doesn’t go into a single trash can. The government provides mandated garbage bags only sold at specific stores in specific locations privy only to people in the know.

Top Cultural Differences between South Korea and the USA
Before: Overnight Garbage has not been sorted

At the Global Campus we line our bins with the grocery store bags we have to purchase to carry our groceries home. When our bags are full we take our garbage downstairs where it is then sorted for us – by a human, who is given government mandated garbage bags.

Top Cultural Differences between South Korea and the USA
After: The garbage post sorting

15. Trust Me

The final top cultural difference between America vs. South Korea is about trust. Everyone in this country is honest and unassuming in their belief that everyone will respect them and their private property. And, they do.

During one of our first days here in South Korea, a local woman offered to help us purchase Subway tickets. On this occasion we got too much money back at the automatic machine. The woman helping us took the extra coins and put them on the counter next to the card machine. When we came back hours later, the coins were still there.

Scooters are left outside stores for hours while parents and children go shopping and no one bats an eye. Many bikes here are locked up, but those same bikes are so rusted and dusty and damaged and knocked over, they appear to have been left here since the age of Atlantis, yet no one dares to remove them.

Rusted Bikes
Time to say goodbye

We’ve left a backpack on a subway, a cell phone in a taxi cab, and left a scooter behind in a subway station. We had every single item returned to us within hours. People say that Japan is safe even though we were pick-pocketed at the Don Quixote. Japan’s got nothing on South Korea.

Check out what else we’ve learned living here, like Everything you Need to Know About Eating Bugs, How to Ride a Stupid Elevator in Korea and What is it Like Living in the World’s Smartest City!