What Is Nunchi? 8 Rules For This Korean Secret To Emotional Intelligence
Raise your hand if this sounds like you: You're at a work meeting, and your colleague completes her presentation and says, “So if there are no more questions, I guess we can break for lunch.” At that moment, you say, “I have a question, actually.”
Or, when you’re fighting with your significant other, you say something like, “How was I supposed to know? I’m not a mind-reader.”
If these scenarios seem familiar, you need to work on your nunchi.
Nunchi is a Korean word that literally translated means “eye-measure.” It’s the art of gauging how people are thinking and feeling in order to create connection, trust, and harmony. It’s related to concepts like emotional intelligence and situation awareness, but with two major distinguishing factors:
- Nunchi emphasizes the room as a whole, single organism, and not just the people within it;
- Speed is paramount to nunchi.
Nunchi is a life strategy for the 21st century that’s actually thousands of years old.
In Korea, nunchi is woven into daily life. Koreans have a saying: “Half of social life is nunchi.” In the modern world at large, the time for nunchi is long overdue. The myth of autonomy, self-reliance, and generally being pushy and selfish has brought us to the brink of self-destruction: It has worsened income disparities and is eroding the planet. Smartphones just exacerbate the problem, providing an addictive excuse for ignoring everyone.
The cure is nunchi.
You may not think of a room as a single living, breathing organism, but it is. It has its own "temperature," "barometric pressure," 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. Act with no nunchi, and you ruin the boonwigi for the whole room. Act with great, or "quick" nunchi, and you can enhance the atmosphere of the room for everyone.
The minor adjustment of plugging your five senses—and your gut—into a room has an instantly grounding, harmonizing effect. All you need are your eyes and your ears. And, this cheat sheet can’t hurt.
The 8 rules of nunchi
First, empty your mind.
Step back, breathe, and remember that prejudice prevents you from learning anything about people. If you assume you know everything about a meeting, new country, or a date before you’ve even started it, you are shutting down your senses and leaving less room to gather data about the room.
Remember the Nunchi Observer Effect.
When you enter a room, you change the room. Be aware of your influence. Your presence is already changing the environment without you saying a word. No need for a dog and pony show unless everyone seems to have dogs and ponies. If you enter a party, meeting, or any other social gathering, please don’t launch into a joke right away. It’s much more jarring than you think, even if the joke is funny.
Watch the room.
If you’re the one who just entered the room, everyone else has been there longer than you. Watch them to gain information about the room. If everyone looks sad, don’t try to cheer everyone up until you have more data. If everyone is seated in a circle on the floor engaged in some activity, don’t break up the activity unless it’s clear they’re summoning Satan.
For example, most people have the ability to discern when they’re arriving at a party and the couple hosting it have just had a huge fight—but only if you’re paying attention. If you don’t pick up on this tension, you may miss something. Is the food not yet out on the table? Don’t comment on it, or you may unintentionally be hitting upon the very topic they’re fighting about, and introduce even more unwellness into the atmosphere.
Never pass on a good opportunity to shut up.
If you wait long enough, most of your questions will be answered without your having to say a word. This advice will serve you well in negotiations, where the goal is to learn as much as possible while keeping your cards close to the vest. If you’re making an offer on a car, for example, and the other person does not respond to your offer, do not deal with your anxiety over the silence by saying anything else; just listen.
Manners exist for a reason.
Don’t dismiss them as hoity-toity; they’re in place to make people feel comfortable. Maybe you want to use the bread plate to your right instead of your left because you just gotta do you. But guess what? If you take the wrong bread plate it means someone else doesn't have one.
Read between the lines.
People don’t always say what they're thinking, and that’s their prerogative. If it makes someone anxious to be blunt, then don’t put them in that position—pay attention to context and to what they are not saying, from the very first moment you lay eyes on someone, before you even say hi. That initial greeting matters a lot. Don’t assume that everyone does exactly what you and your friends do. The minute you forget that is the minute someone stops wanting to get to know you.
I know several instances of someone trying to be formal when meeting a friend’s extended family, only to be met by a crushing bear hug and the comment, "Sorry, we’re a family of huggers." People who do this: Why? Many people are not comfortable hugging. In essence, you are saying, "We outnumber you and thus are using a display of force."
When meeting anyone for the first time, watch them to see how they expected to be greeted. Do they look as though they’re planning to bow, shake your hand, do the French "bises" (cheek kisses), or—believe it or not—none of the above? Don’t hug your colleague’s wife or husband, only to find that the couple are from a culture where a man and woman who are not spouses are not supposed to touch each other—you’ve basically committed assault in their eyes.
If you cause harm unintentionally, it’s sometimes as bad as if you caused it intentionally.
Intent is not impact, as the saying goes. Intent is just based on what’s in your own head; you need to get outside of your head to make people comfortable around you. Try to create roundness, not jagged edges. This is true for things both big and small. Let’s say you are not good at knowing when a host secretly wants you to leave. Your host says, “I’d love for you to stay for dinner but I don’t have enough lamb.” If you say, “Oh it’s ok, I’m a vegetarian anyway,” ugh. Even though you didn’t mean to encumber them, they will remember you as a pest and be far less likely to invite you over in the future.
Be nimble, be quick.
Gather data quickly, process quickly, adapt quickly. The room you entered 10 minutes ago is not the same room that you are in now. Everything is in flux. Remember: Survival of the fittest doesn’t mean survival of the strongest. It means survival of the most adaptable.
Nunchi isn’t just something that’s “nice to have,” like an ear for music or mere charm; it’s a means of survival and well-being. Causing unintentional gaffes due to a lack of nunchi is sometimes hilarious, sure, but often the stakes are more serious. Intent is not impact, as they say. Deliberate or not, the ick from someone nunchi-deficient yields the same result. Think about friends who are no longer your friends, not because of malice, but because people just didn’t want to be around them. Most likely, no one will ever tell this person why they lost friends, were passed up for promotions, or seem to find that doors open to others are closed for them. For such people, life is a mystery.
But it doesn’t have to be a mystery. All you need are your eyes and your ears, and the willingness to pay attention to the data points they provide, even if it means sitting through the anxiety of silence.
Euny Hong is a journalist and thrice-published author, most recently of The Power of Nunchi: The Korean Secret to Happiness and Success, which has sold translation rights in 17 regions. She graduated from Yale University with a B.A. in Philosophy and is a former Fulbright Scholar. Euny's articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Financial Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal Europe, The International Herald Tribune, The New Republic, and The Boston Globe, among others. She has delivered live talks at SXSW 2015, Boston College, Harvard, Yale, The Korea Society, and has keynoted events around the country.