November 19, 2019

The Korean Art of "Nunchi"

“I was born in the United States and raised in an English-speaking household. My parents spoke Korean with each other — it was great for secret conversations — but not with me and my siblings. Nonetheless, some Korean words were impossible to escape.

One of the first I learned was “nunchi”— literally translated, “eye-measure.” Nunchi is the art of sensing what people are thinking and feeling, and responding appropriately. It’s speed-reading a room with the emphasis on the collective, not on specific individuals. It might be the most important word I ever learned.

As with most Korean children, I learned it in the negative, with my parents chiding, “Why don’t you have any nunchi?” In traditional Korean child rearing, nunchi is on a par with “Look both ways before crossing the street” and “Don’t hit your sister.”

In Korea, nunchi is woven into everyday life. Take, for example, business cards. Even in the era of LinkedIn, Koreans still exchange business cards, and the exchange approaches ceremonial levels: You must take and receive a business card with both hands, as if it were fragile, and study it respectfully for a few seconds. You never stuff it in your wallet. This ritual gives all parties a chance to take a beat and use their nunchi — to eye-measure each other to get a sense of the implied hierarchy and whether one is reckoning with a future ally or a foe. It also connects the giver with the receiver, laying a foundation for trust.”

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