Korea is one hell of a densely packed nation. More than 50 million people are squeezed into an area of about 100,000 km2. We’re talking India density here, higher than China density. And roughly half of the country is mountainous and not suited for maintaining dense populations. So with all these people about, how exactly does Korean society turn out to be so friendly and polite?
My observations point to a deeply-rooted social hierarchy and culture of respect pervasive in this nation. The first rule is you always respect your elders. Period. Politeness and formality is built into the way people communicate with each other. The most important aspect of social hierarchy is your age. Your job and marital status also factor into the equation, but nothing is more important than age. Hangukeh, the Korean language, incorporates varying levels of respect and formality specifically for addressing people of a different age.
Bowing is also a pervasive phenomenon. In your average day you may bow to others anywhere between 10-20 times, depending on how many people you see and what the circumstances are. Bowing is a way to physically demonstrate your respect and acknowledgement of the other. You don’t necessarily have to bow to someone younger, but you really should bow to people that you know who are senior to you in status or of an older age whenever you greet them or take your leave. And depending on the situation, a bow may be appropriate in the midst of conversation. That’s just the way it is.
When receiving something or passing something to another person, you should extend your right hand and touch your left hand to your right elbow. It takes a little bit of conscious thinking and effort, but the effect is that you are physically demonstrating your respect and acknowledgement of the individual you are interacting with. It is also acceptable to pass and receive items if you use both hands. It is considered rude if you pass or receive something with one hand while another hand is in your pocket. Being casual is being rude because it is viewed as being dismissive of the person you are interacting with. Just ask Bill Gates. http://kotaku.com/how-a-bill-gates-handshake-caused-controversy-in-south-477602802
When I pay for an item at the grocery store, supermarket, or wherever I may be, I always pass the money in my right hand and bend my left arm so that my left hand is touching my right elbow. Korean people really appreciate it when they see that action and they will instantaneously grant you the same level of respect.
A couple of weeks ago all the teachers and administration of our elementary school went out for a dinner to inaugurate the beginning of the new school year. As we were being seated in the restaurant and people were getting comfortable, I witnessed a small ceremony unfolding. I was lucky enough to be sat opposite the vice-principal of the school so I had a first row seat.
The principal stood up and uttered some words to all the guests then extended an envelope (using both hands) to the teacher sat opposite him. The teacher received the envelope with both hands then said some celebratory words to the rest of the dinner party. Immediately after, the vice-principal, seated to the right of the principal, stood up and said some brief words then also handed an envelope to the same teacher. That teacher again said a few words to the dinner guests. Finally, the head teacher, seated next to the vice-principal, stood up and the pattern was repeated. This small ceremony demonstrated to all present that the principal, vice-principal, and head teacher were paying for the dinner. It is safe to say that the dinner guests – the teachers at the school – cheered and applauded as the ceremonious events unfolded.
In my mind, respect for the other is ingrained in Korean society. You constantly demonstrate your respect by the words you use and the gestures you perform. It appears as though this has worked in maintaining social harmony in a country packed as tight as a sardine can.