The guiding principal of South Korean life, improving your nunchi can help you to make deeper, more meaningful connections in life according to Euny Hong.
Nunchi can seem almost supernatural to non-Koreans. It’s a way of consciously using your intuition to understand the world around you and adapting to new situations even when you might not have all the information. Essentially, it’s a way of reading the room before you spring into action.
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Euny explains that nunchi translates into English as “measuring with your eyes”. You’re sizing up the situation as soon as you enter it. People with quick (good) nunchi pick up on the unspoken cues as soon as they move into a new environment.
She gives a good example of bad nunchi that she witnessed at work. A male colleague saw a woman looking sad in the office and said: “Did somebody die?” In fact, the woman’s boyfriend had just died in a very tragic way. Euny says that if he’d been paying attention, he would have noticed people trying to comfort her on that day. If he’d been paying attention more in general, he would have also noticed her leave of absence and other signs.
If you have bad nunchi, she warns, you might notice that people avoid spending time around you or rolling their eyes when you talk. David Brent from The Office is a good example of this.
Euny came to nunchi late – she was 12 when she moved from Chicago to South Korea. She had to start school there without knowing any of the language and became dependent on nunchi to understand what was going on around her.
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Korean children are taught about nunchi from an early age – it’s an essential life skill, like learning how to cross the road safely. “Nunchi is taught to Korean children from a really young age usually in the negative: ‘Where’s your nunchi?’.”
Euny believes that we can learn to develop our nunchi at any age, but that some people have a natural advantage. “That’s the beauty of nunchi. There’s a Korean expression about nuchi, which is that it is the secret weapon of the disadvantaged,” she says. “In martial arts, for example, somebody might be stronger than you, but you can actually use that against them,” Euny says.
“You know that if they’re if they’re taller, they have a higher centre of gravity that makes them easier to topple over if they’re heavier. When then when they fall, it’s harder for them to get up. So if you’re actually clever, you don’t see anything as a total defeat. You realise that everything has a plus and a minus.”
Listen to the episode for more insights into nunchi – plus find out which fictional characters have good or bad nunchi.
About Euny Hong
Euny is an author and journalist who, at the age of 12, moved with her family from suburban Chicago to South Korea and had a crash course in nunchi. Her book, The Power of Nunchi: The Korean Secret to Happiness and Success is out now in the UK. (Penguin, £12.99).