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Nunchi is the Korean art of working out what people are thinking

Have you ever wondered why your friend has an instinctive grasp of how to put people at their ease in social situations? 

Or why your colleague – the one who on paper isn’t quite as accomplished as you – is the one who keeps getting promoted? 

What about the way you always find it impossible to catch the bartender’s eye? The answer may lie in a single word: nunchi.

Have you ever wondered why your friend has an instinctive grasp of how to put people at their ease in social situations?

Few of us have heard of it, yet according to a new book due to be released this autumn, those who possess it flourish in every area of their life.

Nunchi is a Korean word which, translated directly, means ‘eye measure’. 

But like so many other one-word phenomena – take the Danish hygge for encompassing a feeling of cosiness, for example – it actually embodies a much wider and altogether more nuanced way of thinking.

According to author Euny Hong in her eagerly anticipated book The Power of Nunchi – The Korean Secret To Happiness And Success, it can be described as ‘the subtle art of gauging other people’s thoughts and feelings in order to build trust, harmony and connection’.

Nunchi, she says, is a mixture of tact, savoir faire, perceptiveness and an eye for social situations, all rolled up in an instinctive sense of how to read any given encounter and respond.

According to author Euny Hong in her eagerly anticipated book The Power of Nunchi ¿ The Korean Secret To Happiness And Success, nunchi can be described as ¿the subtle art of gauging other people¿s thoughts and feelings in order to build trust, harmony and connection¿

According to author Euny Hong in her eagerly anticipated book The Power of Nunchi – The Korean Secret To Happiness And Success, nunchi can be described as ‘the subtle art of gauging other people’s thoughts and feelings in order to build trust, harmony and connection’

For centuries it has been the guiding principle of Korean life, and parents believe that imparting nunchi to their children is as important as teaching them to cross the road safely.

It’s not the first lifestyle concept from the East threatening to take a firm hold in the West. 

Just look at Marie Kondo’s wildly popular decluttering philosophy inspired by her Japanese roots.

Nunchi, she says, is a mixture of tact, savoir faire, perceptiveness and an eye for social situations, all rolled up in an instinctive sense of how to read any given encounter and respond

Nunchi, she says, is a mixture of tact, savoir faire, perceptiveness and an eye for social situations, all rolled up in an instinctive sense of how to read any given encounter and respond

While Kondo has helped revolutionise household management by insisting that we keep only the possessions that ‘spark joy’, nunchi promises to transform everything from your career to your relationships. 

As Hong explains, it’s the embodiment of skills necessary to communicate effectively – both at work and at home: ‘Improving your nunchi will help you to open doors you never knew existed.’

WAY OF LIFE INSPIRED BY CONFUCIUS

The concept of nunchi – if not the name – goes back many thousands of years in Korean culture and coincides with the introduction of Chinese philosopher Confucius’s teachings to the country around 2,500 years ago.

The central principles of Confucianism – respect for elders, treating others with consideration in all circumstances and acting or speaking with caution – soon became the backdrop of Korean values too, underpinning the country’s education system and government.

The concept of nunchi ¿ if not the name ¿ goes back many thousands of years in Korean culture and coincides with the introduction of Chinese philosopher Confucius¿s teachings to the country around 2,500 years ago

The concept of nunchi – if not the name – goes back many thousands of years in Korean culture and coincides with the introduction of Chinese philosopher Confucius’s teachings to the country around 2,500 years ago

HOW IT WORKS FOR THE 21st CENTURY

From the home to the workplace, nunchi underpins everything, as nunchi expert Dr Sofie Nyland found when she first moved to live in the capital Seoul.

‘A Korean friend said that someone had “no nunchi” and I asked them to explain. She said it’s someone who is really awkward and doesn’t pick up on social cues.

‘My first thought was, “how very efficient’’. In English, we’d have to use several words to convey the same thing but in Korean you can just use one.

‘We all know people who have no social awareness, but there is no English word that translates.’

Dr Nyland, 34, teaches economics at the University of Seoul, but she has also become one of very few English language writers on nunchi and is convinced it will take hold in Britain, where addiction to social media is already said to be undermining our relationships.

‘I have no doubt it will become a sensation in the UK,’ she says.

‘I’ve already started using it with my non-Korean friends. I’m sure it will catch on quickly and be the new hygge because it’s so important and useful.’

One of the most common phrases in Korea is ‘to have nunchi’ or ‘to have no nunchi’.

‘If you have nunchi, you know when to speak and when to be quiet, you know how to react, you know when to smile, when to laugh, how to please people around you,’ Dr Nyland continues. 

‘The opposite is to be completely out of step with other people and be socially awkward.

‘It was difficult for me to get used to in the beginning. I was brought up speaking my mind more, as we do in Western culture.’

One of the most common phrases in Korea is ¿to have nunchi¿ or ¿to have no nunchi¿. Above: The skyline of downtown Seoul

One of the most common phrases in Korea is ‘to have nunchi’ or ‘to have no nunchi’. Above: The skyline of downtown Seoul

People said to have ‘quick nunchi’ are the first to pick up on the mood of the room or notice that someone is feeling sad because of clues in their body language.

It can be used in a sarcastic way if someone is pointing out the obvious, says Dr Nyland.

‘It can be the Korean equivalent of saying, “No kidding.”’

In a social situation, Koreans ‘watch nunchi’, observing the correct dinner etiquette or finding the right moment to leave without seeming rude.

Then there’s the expression ‘to eat nunchi rice’, which can be equated to the English phrase ‘treading on eggshells’. 

In essence, it means you’re trying very hard not to upset someone.

Dr Nyland says she has already noticed nunchi’s positive impact.

‘I feel that my relationships are a little smoother now that I know about nunchi. It’s helped with my mother especially,’ she laughs.

‘When I was younger, we had a lot of conflicts. I realise the more we try to focus on finding common ground, the more our relationship improves. 

That’s what nunchi is all about – focusing on what connects us instead of what separates us. 

In the UK and the West, it’s so easy to be focused on yourself, but at the end of the day we’re not happy if we don’t get along with other people.’

SO HOW DO I BRING NUNCHI INTO MY LIFE?

The great news is that anyone can hone their nunchi – all you need are your eyes and ears and a willingness to start reading situations before speaking or acting.

‘Think of it as an extreme form of tact,’ suggests Jen Fletcher, a consultant and expert in South Korean culture. 

She says Koreans are less direct than us and rely more heavily on non-verbal cues – but that anyone can learn nunchi.

Beware though: if it doesn’t come naturally, it won’t happen overnight. ‘If you find it to be an exercise in frustration, you’re not alone,’ says Ms Fletcher. ‘It may take some time, but in the end everyone is happy and harmony is preserved.’

‘First of all, pay proper attention to the person who is speaking to you. Much of the time, we don’t listen properly to what people say. 

Don’t look at your phone. Pick up the unconscious or semi-conscious signals people give off.’

Body language is important as well, as Dr Nyland explains. ‘I’d suggest trying to mirror the other person’s body language, gestures and facial expressions.’

Eye contact is good but in Korea too much eye contact may seem a bit confrontational, depending on who you are with.

And taking time to reflect on your nunchi – or its lack – will be crucial in improving it.

‘When you get home from a social gathering, think about how you came across,’ advises Dr Nyland. ‘How would you perceive your behaviour that night? 

‘Think about if there’s anything you did that might have offended anyone.’

TAKE CARE OVER WHAT YOU SAY TO OTHERS

Imagine you’re meeting up with an old friend – we’ll call her Deborah. The last time you saw each other, Deborah had told you that she was confident her partner was on the verge of proposing.

Yet when you do get together, not only is Deborah not wearing an engagement ring but she noticeably doesn’t mention her partner either. 

Thirty minutes into your encounter, you decide to ask her directly what happened, causing Deborah great distress when she has to reveal that her partner still hasn’t proposed and that she feels embarrassed having spoken about her high hopes.

‘That is a classic example of bad nunchi,’ says Dr Nyland. ‘Even if there is no one else present, you’d be embarrassing her.

‘She is probably very aware that there is no engagement ring on her finger and if she does not mention it to you, then you should not bring it up because it’s likely there’s some conflict that she does not want to talk about.

‘Maybe they broke up or maybe they’ve had a row. Asking a question that causes someone to be uncomfortable – “You still haven’t found a job?”, “I thought you guys were going to get married soon?”, “I heard you failed your exam?” – is very bad nunchi. Pointing out that someone has gained weight would also be terrible nunchi.’

Another example is speaking loudly about yourself without paying attention to whether anyone is actually interested.

Refusing a drink or saying you don’t like the food someone has ordered is also considered very bad nunchi, says Dr Nyland.

But the worst of all? ‘Criticising people in the presence of others, such as saying, “You are so bad at doing this” or “You can’t do that” or ‘“I wouldn’t wear that if I were you,”’ says Dr Nyland.

‘Humiliating someone in a public setting is the worst nunchi you could possibly have.’

SOMETIMES IT’S BETTER TO JUST SAY NOTHING

An example of good nunchi, meanwhile, is where you read the non-verbal cues and then run with them.

Let’s imagine two work colleagues – we’ll call them Sarah and John – have started dating.

It’s all above board but they think it might compromise their professional reputation if their office peers know about it.

While chatting to David, one of her colleagues, in the coffee queue, Sarah accidentally lets slip a piece of information that implies she is in a relationship with John.

Instead of probing her about it, however, David simply carries on chatting as if he didn’t pick up on the information.

Dr Nyland said: ‘This is very good nunchi. He’s making Sarah feel safe and comfortable, and to realise her secret is safe with him.

‘Bad nunchi is putting people on the spot and he’s avoiding that. He’s definitely showing good nunchi. Incidentally, if David has good “grasping nunchi”, he probably knew about Sarah and John’s relationship already.’

Good nunchi also means providing the correct signals with your own body language.

‘If someone is smiling at you, smile back,’ says Dr Nyland. ‘If you laugh at something and the other person has a complete poker face, you might feel offended that they don’t have the same response as you. 

This is why some people may be better at catching the eye of the barman. So bear this in mind to achieve good nunchi.’

COULD NUNCHI REALLY IMPROVE MY LIFE?

Absolutely, says Professor Gail Kinman, a psychologist specialising in emotional intelligence.

‘Here in the UK we could absolutely benefit from nunchi.

‘We have it to a certain degree with British manners. But being aware of the people around us is becoming a little less common these days, with the reliance on mobile phones.

‘It’s something that, if we’re not careful, we may well lose. So we should try to adopt nunchi as much as we can. You’ll get social benefits with your friends, relationships and family, and in formal situations like interviews.

‘Ultimately, the individuals who do better in life are the ones who are more emotionally intelligent, the ones who can pick up other people’s signals better.’

It’s no wonder that nunchi is one of the words most frequently used by Korean employers.

And there’s plenty of room for nunchi in the British workplace too.

Dr Nyland puts it simply: ‘At work, good nunchi will make your boss like you more. Showing bad nunchi might stop you getting a promotion, even if you’re better on paper than a colleague.’

Some of this is common sense. Prof Kinman says most of us, for example, know our bosses well enough to realise when they are in a good or bad mood – and we wouldn’t ask them for a pay rise when they were in the latter.

But honing these skills are the key to truly shining at work.

‘People would want to be with you more whether they’d realise why or not,’ she says. ‘It’s quite a subconscious thing but your colleagues would feel comfortable around you and your boss would prefer you because you’re the type of person who can pick up on things they don’t have to say. You’d be seen more positively.’

And Prof Kinman thinks that nunchi and the awareness that it brings could be beneficial for people in all aspects of their lives.

‘It could help you with relationships, at work, and it could help parents with children.’

In fact, she believes that emotional intelligence should be taught in British schools.

‘Starting early is important,’ she maintains. ‘It’s harder for adults to learn it because they tend to be more stuck in their routines but it could be learned.

‘We’re all naturally good at picking up on the emotions of those around us – we just need to find it in ourselves.’

Read more at DailyMail.co.uk


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