Monday, December 14, 2009

Using two hands.

In Korea, to use one hand to do something is considered to be rude. So stop doing it.

Seriously. But don't go all out and use two hands to accept liquid hand sanitizer or anything like that but the primary receiving and giving of anything from cash to paper handouts should be done with both hands*. Think of it as a redundancy - if one hand freaks out and shucks you, you still got the other one. You never know when you'll need the strength of two hands...
Big Strong Hands Two Korean Class 101
Seriously though it's just one of those cultural nuances that is important and sometimes overlooked. The most common mistake comes from the use of the left hand only. That's just nasty.

I kid. Come on now, who really thinks about which hand we use? In a Western setting, I never care about it other than in a handshake. If I want to hand something over or receive something, I just do it with whatever hand is most convenient. If I reach for some cash out of my wallet, I'll hand it over to the clerk without thinking about if I'm using the dirty left or the royal right. I think back to a classroom setting when a teacher hands out papers to the front row and the students are to pass back the handouts to the student behind them. I usually just took one and naturally passed the papers backwards with my left hand while I read the new handout with my right hand.

But, I can appreciate the Korean emphasis on hands. In America, if someone tried to shake my hand with their left hand instead of their right, I might not be overtly offended, but I would be a little perplexed.
But two hands? All the time?

*Sort of. If you're going to use one hand to pass something, and you're of sufficient social status, use the right hand only. Otherwise, use both hands to be the most polite. More commonly, use your left hand to support your body - almost as if you point to your elbow with your fingers whilst your palm rests on your upper stomach. Support your elbow but don't make it into a Klingon rite of passage - make the effort and your politeness is conveyed.
Korean bow two hands polite humble blog KC101
One can easily tell who's the top dog and who's the 신입사원 at the drinking table simply by taking a look at the pouring style. Always pouring with the right hand, look at the left hand of the person pouring. The closer the left hand is to the wrist, the more respectable the person is being. No left hand support equals friendship in the sense that two hands are not required.

So what have we learned? Like any culture, there are certain normative expectations associated with politeness. What surprises me is how a firm handshake is not required. I feel like I'm crushing the hands of Korean people I meet simply because I was taught that a nice firm handshake was a way to convey security, trust and friendliness. Likewise, two hands (or one hand supporting the other) conveys humbleness, submission and respect.

Want to get your hands on more Korean hand gesture goodness? Then listen to everyone's favorite married couple and go eat your kimchi.