Euny Hong in her book ‘Nunchi, the Korean secret of happiness and success’ define Nunchi as the subtle art of gauging other people’s thoughts and feelings to build harmony, trust, and connection.
Nunchi is a part of daily life in Korea, because Korean culture is what is known as high context, which is to say that a great deal of communication is based not on words, but on the understanding of multiple factors: body language, facial expressions, tradition, who else is present, and even silence.
A skilled nunchi practitioner understands they are seeking answers to these two questions: ‘What is the emotional energy of this room?’ and ‘What kind of emotional energy can I emit in order to flow with that?’
When you enter a room, having good nunchi means observing before you begin to speak or interact. You should think of a room as a single living, breathing organism.
Have you ever been in a room when someone important 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 a simple example of nunchi in action.
Having great nunchi means continuously recalibrating your assumptions based on any new word, gesture, or facial expression, so that you are always present and aware. the more important a situation is, the greater the likelihood that the most crucial information is not expressed out loud, or not expressed truthfully.
At the same time, you should you care about what vibes you are transmitting. Why? It is best expressed in the saying: ‘I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.’
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, and it can even reduce social anxiety.
Conversely, a lack of nunchi can make people dislike you in a way that is as mysterious to them as it is to you.
An intrinsic part of nunchi is the dimension of change: understand that everything is in flux. As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus wisely wrote in the sixth century BC, ‘You can’t step into the same river twice.’ Adapting that principle to nunchi: the room you walked into ten minutes ago is not the same room as it is now.
You are provided of a good Nunchi if:
You feel awkward saying something without knowing the other person’s mood/mental state
Even if someone is saying something indirectly, you still comprehend the subtext.
You are good at quickly discerning the other person’s mood and inner state.
You don’t make other people uncomfortable.
At a social gathering, you are able to distinguish easily between when it’s time to leave and when it’s not time to leave.
Everyone is born with the potential for nunchi, but in order to draw it out, you have to challenge some biases of Western culture are these:
Empathy is valued over understanding. Activation is valued over stillness and quiet. Extroversion is valued over introversion. Jagged edges are valued over roundness. Individualism is valued over collectivism.
Let’s declare now the eight rules of nunchi:
- First, empty your mind. Step back, breathe, and remember that prejudice prevents you from learning anything about other people.
- Be aware of the Nunchi Observer Effect. When you enter a room, you change the room. Understand your influence. Your presence is already changing the environment without you saying a word.
- If you just arrived in the room, remember that everyone else has been there longer than you. Watch them to gain information.
- Never pass up a good opportunity to shut up. If you wait long enough, most of your questions will be answered without you having to say a word.
- Manners exist for a reason. Don’t dismiss them as superficial; they’re used to make people feel comfortable.
- Read between the lines. People don’t always say what they are thinking and that’s their prerogative. Pay attention to context and to what they are not saying.
- If you cause harm unintentionally, it’s sometimes as bad as if you’d caused it intentionally. Intent is not impact, as the saying goes.
- Be nimble, be quick. Gather data quickly, process quickly, adapt quickly. Remember: survival of the fittest doesn’t mean survival of the strongest. It means survival of the most adaptable.
Exercising nunchi can dissipate some of the anxiety you have about social interactions. If you have quick nunchi, you can create a harmonious environment, which makes people want to be around you. You can be a better parent, partner, son or daughter, colleague, boss, and friend. Nunchi, according to Euny, is the currency of life.
Adapted from Euny Hong, Nunchi, the Korean secret of happiness and success, Penguin Books, 2019