Have you ever wanted to read minds? Or wished you had a little bit more of whatever ineffable quality it is that makes some people seem effortlessly popular at parties, lucky in love, and successful at work?
Perhaps you need to brush up on you nunchi – a traditional Korean concept of situational awareness and the focus of the Korean American journalist and author Euny Hong’s new book The Power of Nunchi: The Korean Secret to Happiness and Success.
According to Hong, nunchi is the “art of understanding what people are thinking and feeling” – a quality held by those who are sensitive to the dynamics within a given group.
Koreans cultivate nunchi from a young age. “Kids in Korea know the word by age three,” she says. “You usually learn it in the negative; if everyone is standing on the right side of an escalator and a kid is lounging on the left, the parent will say, ‘Why don’t you have any nunchi?’ It’s partly about not being rude, but it’s also partly, ‘Why are you not plugged into your environment?’”
The word “nunchi” itself roughly translates to “eye-measure”, a sort of sizing-up, not of individuals but of the overall context and atmosphere of a situation. It’s applicable to just about every social setting one can be in, from a wedding to a job interview.
In action, nunchi involves noticing who, in any given context, is speaking, who is listening, who interrupts, who apologizes, who is rolling their eyes. From there, one can make potentially useful assessments about the nature of relationships and hierarchies within a group, the overall mood, and how to behave accordingly.
As the truly skilled discern such cues intuitively even as they’re constantly in flux, Koreans don’t say someone has “good” nunchi, but “quick” nunchi – the ability to rapidly process changing social information.
Because people with quick nunchi take the time to read the room, their chances of success in any social environment are high – they’re more likely to fit in and make connections and are less prone to coming across as clueless or incompetent, or of committing awkward faux pas.
“At a very basic level, people will be happier to be around you if you have quick nunchi,” says Hong, “and from a Machiavellian point of view, you can negotiate better” by staying quiet, listening carefully, and gathering information from others before speaking.
Because nunchi is a soft skill premised on discretion, Hong notes it can be a superpower for introverts. She claims approaching social situations through the lens of nunchi even helped her battle social anxiety, allowing her to remain grounded in stressful circumstances.
In her book, Hong also makes the case that nunchi not only helps individuals but has factored into Korea’s rapid development from one of the world’s poorest nations to a high-income, culturally powerful country in a matter of generations.
This is, as they say, big if true.
Yet if the subtle art of nunchi is so powerful, why does it seem that these days corporate and world leaders seem to more often be blustery loudmouths, rather than sensitive, quiet types?
Hong’s investigation of this question illuminates why the concept of nunchi – with its emphasis on unity, relationship building, and collective harmony – may be particularly relevant at a cultural and political moment characterized by divisiveness. It is, after all, essentially the power of understanding others.
“In the west, autonomy and individualism are emphasized, and nunchi seems to advocate the opposite,” she says. “But developing nunchi doesn’t mean becoming a lemming, it just means you are using data to your advantage to create comfort for yourself and everybody else.”