Life In Korea - To Tip or Not To Tip

by Jimalee Sowell, 24/07/2010

Having worked in the service industry for many years, I’ve become a generous tipper. Typically, people in the service industry don’t make a lot of money, and I’ve always felt that a tip can brighten someone’s day. Though I know that Korea does not have a tipping culture, I’ve found that even a small tip of W1,000 or so has put a smile on even the surliest of taxi drivers. Likewise, the tips I have left at restaurants have often been warmly received.

Recently, though, when out to lunch with a group of non-Korean friends, I left a small tip on the table, but after I left the restaurant, the waiter chased me down and said I had left too much money. I tried to explain that the extra money was meant to be a tip. The waiter said, “We don’t accept tips.” Naturally, a discussion about tipping culture in Korea ensued. One of my meal mates informed me that Koreans don’t like to accept tips because only lowly people receive tips. This seemed a bit drastic to me, and I wasn’t sure whether I believed it or not.

So, I asked a number of Koreans how Korean service people feel about getting tips. Overwhelmingly, I almost always got the same response, even from the visitor information center. “They are happy.” “But is there ever a time when tipping might be bad?” I wanted to know. I was told that some service people might feel embarrassed by a tip since it is not something they are accustomed to and they wouldn’t know how to respond. I decided to do some on-line and print (guide books) research.

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According to what I’ve read, Koreans don’t expect tips with the exception of hotel bell-hops, who should get about W1,000 per bag, bars that cater to Westerners, hotel maids who expect a W1,000 to W2,000 tip, servers in high-end restaurants who expect a 10 percent tip, upscale  hotels and hotel restaurants that usually add a ten percent gratuity charge to your bill, tour guides who expect a tip of approximately ten dollars a day, and tour bus drivers who expect an approximate five-dollar-per-day tip. Reportedly, hair stylists expect a fifteen percent tip. (In my view, that’s a lot of tip expectation for a non-tipping country.) Many sources indicated that taxi drivers do not expect to be tipped (except when providing some kind of extra service such as helping with baggage) and neither do servers in mid- to low-range restaurants. If we are to make exceptions for so many people in service positions, why are taxi drivers and servers getting left out?

While a number of information sources mention that tipping can be offensive in Korea, no one has explained why that would be so. Is this a myth or something that somebody wrote once and others have copied without checking? Or is it information so outdated that even most Koreans aren’t aware of it?

Perhaps it is that as Korea is changing, so is the tipping culture and service people are beginning to accept and welcome and even sometimes expect tips.

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