Manners Matter: Giving gifts and tips in South Korea

Photos by 123RF
Photos by 123RF

Manners Matter: Giving gifts and tips in South Korea

by Hyemin Lee
Stripes Korea

Americans affiliated with the military often have questions about giving gifts or tokens of gratitude to Korean people. Here are some helpful tips when it come to gift giving in Korea.

Gift-giving manners 

  • When receiving or giving a gift, using both hands is a polite gesture that respects Korean culture, especially when you’re dealing with someone older than you.
  • Gifts are usually wrapped in beautiful wrapping paper with bright colors.
  • Cash gifts should be put in an envelope.
  • Reciprocity is expected in Korean culture. When you receive gifts from Koreans, you are expected to give something with a similar value in the same situation for them later. Giving an expensive gift can be a burden for the receiver.
  • In Korea, showing a gesture of refusing to receive a gift is considered a polite manner, so although a Korean refuses to receive a gift from you, it doesn’t really mean that they don’t want it. Try to insist to give it to them at least twice more. However, there are some situations in the workplace that receiving gifts is forbidden by law. In that case, they’ll let you know they can’t accept your gift because of their work position.

When to give gifts

  • Expression of gratitude

If you want to show appreciation to those working hard or who have helped you by giving a gift, you can buy a small gift such as drinks, snacks or something in the realm of 3,000 won to 20,000 won.

  • Party or special event

When you are invited to a housewarming party, someone’s business opening celebration, or a dinner invitation to a friend’s home, it’s appropriate (and expected) to bring a small gift of good quality like fruits, drinks, cake or flowers. Something from your country would be nice, too.

  • Cash gifts

At Korean weddings and funerals, guests are expected to give a cash gift. An acceptable amount is 100,000 won but you can give more if a person in the event is close to you.

  • Special birthdays

When Koreans turn one, 60, 70, and 80 years old, these birthdays are huge celebrations. Clothes are good gifts for a one-year-old baby, and a health supplement such as a product made of ginseng is good for elders. Cash gifts, however, are preferred for any birthday.

  • Holidays

On Chuseok and Seollal, Korean traditional holidays, it’s common for Koreans to exchange gifts with close friends, coworkers or business partners. Companies give their employees Spam, cooking oil or toiletries in a nice gift box. People usually exchange good quality gifts such as dietary supplements, seasonal fruit or premium Korean beef (Hanwoo).

On Christmas, parents give their children a gift and couples exchange gifts.

For Valentine’s Day, women gift their partners chocolate. One month later, on March 14, men reciprocate and give candy or other sweets.

Cultural difference about tips!

In Korean culture, giving tips is unusual, so some Koreans may feel a little bit offended when you try to tip them. They may think you’re trying to compensate their unconditional kindness and hospitality with money. Instead of tips, giving a small gift would is a nice gesture. However, Koreans working at a barber shop, beauty salon and skin care shop usually accept tips. You also can tip in Western-style hotels or facilities if you want, as well as a taxi driver by saying “keep the change.” But again, tipping is not part of Korean culture, so you don’t have to tip anywhere in Korea except on-base restaurants.

TP at the table?

Whenever I invite my foreign friends to my place, one of the things that shocks them is toilet paper is everywhere at my place, including on my desk and dining table. I usually put them in a nice container, but my friends still can’t still get over it and insist toilet paper is for the bathroom only.

Koreans use toilet paper for multiple purposes. It can be used to wipe tables, as a napkin and as tissue to blow your nose. Don’t be surprised if toilet paper is used as a napkin when you dine out at small or old restaurants.

And believe it or not, when Koreans hold a housewarming party, toilet paper is one of the most common gifts to bring to the host. Giving toilet paper as a housewarming gift means you are wishing them good luck and fortune in the future.


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