Cultural Differences: Korea vs. Canada (pt.1)

During my travels in Seoul, there were some things that I noticed about it that were different from what I was used to experiencing in Canada.

Please note that I was only in Seoul for 10 days, so the observations I will be talking about are solely based on those 10 days. I personally do not think that 10 days is anywhere near enough time to make any conclusions about a culture, and that is not what I will be doing. Instead, I will be presenting what I experienced and witnessed during my 10-day trip.

1. Smoking

Smoking appeared to be more appropriate for males to do than females.

In Canada, I see both men and women smoking in public. However, in Seoul, it seemed as though it was acceptable for men to smoke, but not women – as I would see men smoking out in public, but women would smoke in hidden areas (e.g., alley ways).

2. Sharing Food

In Canada, when you go to a restaurant, you will typically get a meal for yourself. If it is a meal that can be shared, it will be split before anyone actually uses their utensils.

In Seoul, sharing food is very common, so don’t be surprised if you order food and everyone puts their spoons and chopsticks into it. I personally really liked this (although some may disagree because “omg germs”) since eating food becomes a more social thing and you’re able to try bits and pieces of everything instead of just having to stick to one meal.

So, to summarize: When in Canada, if you go to a restaurant, each person orders what they prefer. When in Korea, if you go to a restaurant, multiple dishes are shared by the entire table.

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Although the soup and rice were mine, all the side dishes were shared between myself and a friend

Also, just a side note: you typically cannot go to a BBQ restaurant in Korea if you are alone (unless maybe if you are willing to order enough meat for 2-3 people?).

3. Taking off shoes

In my household, I’m used to taking off my shoes whenever I come in. However, Korea takes taking off shoes to another level (which I actually love!).

Some restaurants I visited required people to take off their shoes before going in. There was a clothing store I went to that required me to take my shoes off before entering the change room.

You will know if you have to take your shoes off when:

  1. There are a bunch of shoes lined up outside
  2. There is some sort of leveled step between the room and the floor
  3. Someone tells you (if you look like a foreigner, this will probably be the case).

4. Helpful people everywhere

People may not come up to you if they see you are confused and need help, but if you ask them for help, they will try their best to be helpful.

Many-a-times I was lost and tried to get help with my broken Korean and never once was someone rude to me. On the contrary, I was helped and some would even go out of their way and walk with me to my destination. This really took me by surprise. Especially one time when I was on the bus and wanted to go to Seoul station to get on the subway to head off to the airport.  A younger couple helped me by getting off the stop with me and walking me to the station!

5.  Being quiet

If you are on the subway or the bus, you need to use your ‘quiet voice’. If you’re Canadian, your ‘quiet voice’ may not even be quiet enough.

This is one thing that I really liked about the subways and busses. It was actually quite pleasant to be in a quieter atmosphere. Now that I think about it, I feel like the whole of Seoul was quieter in terms of how loud people spoke compared to where I live in Canada. Granted, Korean grandmas and grandpas seemed to be the exception to this rule, because they tended to speak as loudly as they wanted.

6. Cute things everywhere

In Canada, I’m sometimes told:

“Why do you want stickers? They’re for kids”

“Why do you want that stuffed animal? Aren’t you supposed to be a grown up?”

“Don’t buy that ribbon for your hair, it’s too child-like”

Well, you know what? Growing up doesn’t mean you have to stop liking the things that you do. And Korea appears to have that same mindset. You can find cute things literally everywhere! They have Teddy Bear Cafés, stickers being sold everywhere, cute stuffed animals, and just so much more!

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Isn’t this cute??
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These lights were on a wall in the LINE store in Myeongdong! Is it acceptable to buy all of them and put them in my room? Yes?

7. Well-dressed

Living in Canada, you may see people running to the grocery store in sweat pants or (on the rare occasion) pyjamas.

I’m highly doubtful that you will see that in Korea – because are people ever well-dressed there! Their style, their makeup, their hair – all of it is meticulously done! It even makes you motivated to put more effort into your appearance. I, for one, found myself more excited to learn about makeup while I was there.

8. Ideal beauty

There appears to be an “ideal” for beauty in Korea. For example, to be considered ‘ideal’, girls should have a V-shaped face, an S-line, white skin, and should be skinny. I am sure that not everyone thinks this way in Korea, as it would be inappropriate to generalize this to every individual. However, this is the impression that I got from a lot of people during my visit. Plastic surgery is a much bigger phenomenon in Korea as it is in Canada, and there are products that include chemicals to whiten your face.

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Also, interestingly, when a makeup style comes in, so many girls wear the same thing! While I was there, a copper eyeshadow colour was “in” and I would estimate that every 5/7 girls would have it on. (Granted, it was a very beautiful colour!)

9. Coffee Shop Culture

This is something I could get used to.

There are cute (pinterest-worthy) coffee shops everywhere!

Where I live in Canada, there is mostly big-chain coffee shops, such as Tim Hortons or Starbucks. In Seoul, I found that there are many personally owned coffee shops. You can even find themed coffee shops – I went to a Teddy Bear themed one (…I totally forgot to take pictures though… sorry!) !

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10. Tipping and “Service”


In Canada, when you go to a restaurant and you get a $15 meal, you know that you will not actually be paying $15 because there will be taxes and tipping involved. As a student who lacks the appropriate funds to eat out more than a once or twice a month, I am not a fan of this. In Korea, whatever price your meal is set at (say, ₩4,000), is whatever you will be paying at the end. There is no tipping, and I assume there is either no tax or the tax is already included within the price.

B) Service (“seobiseu”) – aka. getting free stuff

Depending on what business you are at (makeup store, restaurant, grocery store), you may get some free things!
I first came across ‘service’ when I was sitting at a coffee shop on my first day in Seoul. I was calmly sitting down sipping some of my latte, when a barista came up to me with ice cream in a plate, set it down, said “service,” and walked away. Having already heard of this concept before my arrival in Korea, I was aware of what this meant, but I was surprised nonetheless! But, just imagine for a moment my sheer excitement of getting free ice cream. My day had been made!

Food is not the only thing that will be given as “service”. For example, if you are shopping at a makeup store, they may throw some samples or a product in your bag if you buy things. I have also heard that if you are at a Noraebang (Karaoke), you may get “service” by getting additional minutes added (for free) to your time.

It is always such a joy and an amazing opportunity to experience another country’s culture, even if it is for a brief moment, as such was the case with Korea.

I cannot wait until the day that I have the opportunity to go back and get to experience more of what this beautiful country has to offer.


Interested in reading more about my Korea adventures? Check them out here.