Nunchi, it’s claimed, is the Korean people’s superpower. Some even say it’s a way of reading minds, though there’s nothing supernatural about it. Nunchi is the art of instantly understanding what people are thinking and feeling, in order to get ahead.
If you’re thinking: ‘Not another Eastern fad — I’ve already thrown away half my clothes thanks to Marie Kondo,’ know that nunchi isn’t some quaint custom like taking off your shoes before entering a house. It’s the currency of life: reading a room, a mood or a social situation in order to get what you want.
A well-honed and quick nunchi can help you choose the right partner in life or business; it can help you shine at work; it can protect you against those who mean you harm; it can reduce social anxiety. It can make people take your side even when they aren’t sure why.
The ancient Korean philosophy Nunchi can help you choose the right partner in life or even in business (stock image)
Conversely, a lack of nunchi can make people dislike you in a way that is as mysterious to them as it is to you.
Koreans refer to nunchi as ‘the advantage of the underdog’ because you don’t have to know the right people, or be born with a silver spoon in your mouth to use it.
Nunchi is your secret weapon, even if you’ve got nothing else, and it’s perfectly possible to train yourself in its life-enhancing arts…
LEARN HOW TO READ A ROOM’S ‘BOONWIGI’
When it comes to the practical application of nunchi in daily life, it’s important to understand that the unit of nunchi is the room.
The object of your observation should be the room as a whole and how the individuals within it are acting and reacting.
Have you ever been in a room when a famous person walks in? Even if your back is to the door, and you can’t see who it is, you know from the reactions of everyone around you that something has changed. That is nunchi in action: an awareness of the cues we get from others.
You may not think of a room as a single living, breathing organism, but it is. It has its own ‘temperature’, volume, mood — and these are in constant flux.
Koreans talk of a room as having a ‘boonwigi’ — the room’s atmosphere or wellness level, so to speak. Everyone is a contributing member of this boonwigi just by being there.
When you enter a room, having good nunchi means observing before you begin to speak or interact. Who is standing with whom? Who has three biscuits on their plate when everyone else has only taken one? Who appears to be ‘holding court’ and why might that be?
We have powerful social instincts that give us strong clues about the room, but we have to be observant — more focused on others than on ourselves — in order to read them.
FIVE STEPS TO AWAKEN YOUR NUNCHI
TAKE A PAUSE BEFORE YOU OPEN YOUR MOUTH
When your mind is full of assumptions about people and situations, it is hard to see what is right in front of you and to behave in the most appropriate manner.
Before entering any social situation, pause for a few seconds on the threshold of the room and use the mnemonic HALT, which stands for hungry, angry, lonely, tired. Are you any of those things?
If so, ask yourself: ‘How might that affect the way I go into this room and what I see there?’ Then enter deliberately and mindfully.
Measure what is happening in the room as you arrive. Are people speaking loudly or quietly; are they smiling or do they seem sombre?
Could it be that someone has just delivered bad news, and you entering the room with a joke or in an obviously ebullient mood will cause offence? Even if you did not intend to upset anyone, accidental offence is still offence.
Asking others if they’ve lost weight is pretty much always terrible nunchi, for example. They may have lost weight because of stress, illness or bereavement, and it’s inappropriate to draw attention to it.
To awaken your nunchi, take a pause before you enter a social situation to enter ‘deliberately and mindfully’ (stock image)
GOOD MANNERS ALWAYS MAKE GOOD NUNCHI
It might be annoying to have to wait for everyone to be seated, or eat your soup without splashing it, but manners exist to make everyone feel comfortable. They bring a feeling of calm and stability to the room and everyone in it.
If you’re not sure what the rules are, use your nunchi to discern them. Watch what other people do; observe their actions. Is the bread plate on the left or the right? But don’t be superior about it! The story of Queen Victoria and the finger bowl shows that she was a master of nunchi, even if she had never heard the word
At a Buckingham Palace banquet, a visiting foreign dignitary picked up the finger bowl intended for washing his hands, and drank from it.
The guests around him gasped at his social faux pas, but to save him from embarrassment the Queen picked up her own finger bowl and drank from hers, too, defusing a potentially awkward situation.
Led by her example, others followed, also showing swift nunchi: drinking from a finger bowl isn’t usually acceptable but in this situation it was necessary. Nunchi in action.
LISTEN TO WHAT THEY’RE NOT SAYING
Don’t take a person’s words as being an exact reflection of their thoughts. Study the context and look for non-verbal cues.
You might think that everyone owes it to you to say exactly what they’re thinking, but they don’t. Sometimes you do have to be a mind-reader and, with good nunchi, it’s not as hard as you might imagine.
Obviously, life would be so much simpler if your colleague were to say ‘I’m cold’ instead of ‘Are you cold?’ as a way of feeling out whether it’s OK to turn up the heating. But they might have been raised in a home where they were not allowed to express discomfort, where even a simple statement like ‘I’m cold’ was considered selfish and annoying. If your colleague is prone to an indirect style of communication, the onus is on you and your nunchi to be aware of this and to adapt your behaviour.
DO YOU REALLY NEED TO ASK THAT?
Think about your office meetings: many people ask questions to show off or to brown-nose the boss, or just to be seen to be participating.
Are the people asking the most questions in meetings automatically getting respect or bonuses? Sometimes asking a lot of questions will just earn you eye rolls from your colleagues, who are fixated on the fact that it’s 12.30 and the queue at the canteen is getting longer by the second.
Read the room and don’t always feel you have to ask every question that is in your head.
Good manners bring a sense of ‘calm and stability to the room and everyone in it’ (stock image)
DO NOT IGNORE YOUR GUT REACTION
When someone is skilled in nunchi, Koreans don’t say that person has ‘good nunchi’, they say the person has ‘quick nunchi’. Being right is sometimes useless if you’re too slow.
People with quick nunchi are speedy judges of character. We often suppress the wisdom of our first impressions because we’re taught to give everyone the benefit of the doubt.
But human instincts — gut feelings — have evolved over millions of years and are woven into our DNA. It is OK to judge a person based on your nunchi. You don’t need to ‘earn’ the right to decide for yourself whom you do and do not trust.
How it can help you find lasting love
Online dating has made it commonplace to go out with someone you know next to nothing about. You can’t rely on their online profile and you can’t always trust what they tell you about themselves in person. You have to use nunchi.
If you pay attention to reading the other person — better yet, the whole room — your focus moves away from yourself, which has a calming effect. Who doesn’t want to dissipate the nervousness we all inevitably feel on a first date?
Listen carefully to what he doesn’t say as much as what he does. Is your date avoiding questions about family because he is an orphan, or because he has just buried them all in his back garden?
He’s unlikely to tell you either on first meeting, but you might at least learn there is some issue about his family that makes him uncomfortable. Is he vague about where he lives because he doesn’t want to give away too much personal information or because he has a wife and two kids at home?
It’s also helpful to gauge your date’s nunchi skills. How do they relate to the room themselves? If the wine they wanted isn’t available, for example, do they make a big deal of it or do they just choose another one?
Are they friendly and approachable to others, or closed off and guarded? Don’t just judge the way they behave with you, but assess the way they behave with everyone.
Finding the right partner requires plenty of nunchi. Some friends will tell you to make a list of must-haves —money, looks, good job — and not to budge from these. Others will tell you the exact opposite — that you have to throw your must-haves out of the window or you will remain alone for ever.
Nunchi is the middle path here. You neither have to drop all your standards nor enforce them unrealistically; it is important you are discerning and adaptable. Observe carefully, gather impressions, and don’t ignore ones that tell you what you don’t want to hear.
Think of the couples that you love to be around — I bet they’re the ones with good nunchi.
Couples who are considerate of each other’s feelings and who can anticipate each other’s needs have a way of spreading those good and thoughtful vibes to others. We all want to spend more time with people like this.
The opposite is true for couples with poor nunchi, who either do not see or do not care about their partner’s needs. Everyone dreads having these couples around.
Adapted from The Power Of Nunchi: The Korean Secret To Happiness And Success by Euny Hong, published by Hutchinson on September 5 at £12.99. © Euny Hong 2019. To order a copy for £10.40 (offer valid to September 2; p&p free on orders over £15), call 0844 571 0640.