Just like many Asian countries, bowing is a big part of greetings in Korea. It’s a way to show respect, say hi, thank you, and bye.
Bows are generally reserved as greetings of respect to one’s seniors or when in the company of one’s peers, for formal occasions. You will rarely see close friends bowing to one another, for example, unless they are of a certain age or in a public arena. Waving hello to friends and colleagues with whom you have a familiar rapport is absolutely fine.
Everyday bows as greetings are rarely silent. Greetings are vocalized when bowing and are usually finished by the time the bow is completed. Annyeonghaseyo (안녕하세요) or annyeonghashimnika (안녕하십니까) is “hello”, gamsahamnida (감사합니다) is “thank you”.
Posture. Remember when you were a kid your mother would always say to “stand/sit up straight’? Posture is important, even while bowing. Bowing occurs from the waist, and not the neck. One bows by bending forward their upper body from the waist, standing straight with knees closed.
It is polite to return bows if you are receiving one, unless you’re an obvious senior. Although you’re not required to bow when a child bows to you, it is a nice gesture to do so.
Exchange of name cards and business cards are common in Korea, and you’ll find yourself in situations when you’ll be exchanging cards and bowing at the same time. Give your card with both hands and receive cards with both hands. Once you get used to bowing, double tasking shouldn’t be that difficult.
Handshakes. It’s becoming more and more common to exchange handshakes in business settings. This too, is done while bowing. Sometimes both hands are used to grasp the other person’s hands, sometimes a single handshake suffices. Play it by situation. Note that Korean women generally don’t offer handshakes first, even in business situations. There are some women who even find it offensive when a man offers a handshake, so beware. (Although, in the case of foreigners, you have leeway to be forgiven.)
– When meeting someone in an informal setting in Korea, just a slight tilt of the head is usually ok. This simple bow is also used when saying hello, bye and thank you.
– For more important meetings (or people), the lower you bow, the more respect it shows (it also shows more respect if you hold the bow for a longer period). Hold your hands to the side or in front of you.
– The most respectful bow is called keunjeol (큰절 – “big bow”). This is only used for the most formal occasions and to show the most respect. Koreans typically give their older family members a big bow (keunjeol) on Lunar New Years (설날 – seollal) and the Harvest Festival (추석 – Chuseok). It’s also used for jesa (제사), which is a traditional Korean ceremony that respects ancestors. Also, men will do this to their fiance’s parents when they ask for their hand in marriage. Sometimes instead of a big bow (keunjeol), Korean girls will give 작은절 (jakeunjeol), aka small bow.
Although it may look like one, it’s not to be confused with a curt headnod. Remember: bowing occurs from the waist, not the neck.
A quick, swift bow, this is the greeting close or similar ranked colleagues or friends, and in the situations when you can’t perform the deeper bows: in cramped spaces such as elevators or public transportation. It is also acceptable when you run into the same senior several times during the day.
Respectful 30º ~ 45º Bow
The most common, this is the standard bow. It follows all the general guidelines listed above. It is used to greet almost anybody; seniors and even juniors. You really can’t go wrong.
The “belly-button” or navel bow (배꼽인사) is the formal respectful bow that is mostly used by women in uniform, especially flight attendants and salespeople. The term comes from the fact that the hands are clasped together at the navel position when bowing. The degree of bowing depends on the occasion but the 45º is the most common.
This bow is literally called the “90 degree bow” (90도 인사) in Korean because it is. It’s a form of utter respect, an intentional showing of service and obedience. Despite its good intent, it is highly parodied in comedy skits involving gangsters and overzealous company employees trying to please their seniors. It is also used in occasions for deep apologies.
There aren’t strict rules about bowing, but anything worth doing, it’s worth doing properly. Try to avoid the following:
Do not bow deeper to someone when you are already with another person who is that someone’s senior. For example, when you’re with the director of your department and a manager passes by, you do not give that manager a 90º bow in the director’s presence.
Do not bow “down” to someone, i.e. when you are on a staircase, be sure to get on the same or lower level to whom you are bowing before greeting them.
The “silent bow” is just plain rude, unless you’re in an environment where you have to be quiet like the library or theater. Say hello! Say goodbye! Say thank you!
Bowing is not modern dance. Don’t try to bow while moving, e.g. walking, running, jogging. Take your time to stand still and deliver a proper greeting.
Although it’s not truly a “don’t”, Koreans don’t bow with their hands together in a prayer pose unless they’re Buddhist or in a religious setting. Countries in South East Asia have this custom for everyday life, but it isn’t common here.
Although making eye contact upon first encounter is important, a mistake that foreigners (and even Korean kids) often make is maintaining that eye contact when bowing. What results from this stance: your neck sticks out while your upperbody goes down, making you look like a bird. Not very attractive.
Some people are just too comfortable when bowing. Unless you want to look like you’re trying to touch your toes, avoid being a gorilla; keep your arms naturally at your side.