Korean “Noonchi” and Its Chinese Equivalent Demystified

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People with some understanding of Korean culture, from foreigners living in Korea like me to businessmen ever dealing with partners in Korea, probably have heard about “noonchi” (눈치). It is often regarded as a very Korean concept not quite translatable to other languages. (Urban Dictionary says it can also be the first name of a child. That’s either a joke or abhorrently irresponsible parents!)

There are many different Korean expressions with “noonchi” in them, where sometimes “noonchi” seems to mean the ability to read people or situations and make quick good judgement as in “to have noonchi” (눈치 있다), while other times it seems to mean the silent pressure on people so they act a certain way, as in “to give noonchi” (눈치 준다). So what on earth is “noonchi”?

After some research, I came across this explanation that originally 눈치 was written as 눈츼, which means something like “looking to one’s side without turning his or her head”. In real-life usage of the noonchi expressions, eye movements are not necessarily implied. But I found it fascinating. This more tangible “side-look” image demystifies “noonchi" and makes it easily understandable to people from different cultures. Here is how:

To have/not have the side look (noonchi) (눈치 있다/없다)

Imagine somebody can quickly look at and have a good grasp of what’s going on in their surroundings without even turning his or her head, that is some sort of emotional intelligence! Thus it naturally translates to having quick wits and ability to read situations and people’s intention.

To give / get the side look (noonchi) (눈치 준다/ 눈치 채다)

Imagine your best friend asking your new boyfriend whether you guys want kids and warning you of the ticking clock when they meet for the very first time. Feeling awkward, you look (if not stare) at her from the corner of your eye, hoping she would see you giving her the side look, get the hint and change the topic. Here you are trying to silently give somebody a hint or signal, sometimes even pressure, to make him or her act a certain way. If your friend doesn’t get the noonchi, at least you know right away whether this guy will be easily scared away.

To look at somebody’s side look (noonchi) (눈치 본다)

Well, imagine every time you try to call it a day and leave the office at 5PM, your boss gives you noonchi by watching you from her seat without directly turning her head to you. If you are a person with noonchi and you know she is not happy about it, next time before you leave, you will stand up from your seat and secretly look around to see whether she is looking. If she is, you pretend you have just stood up to stretch and sit back down. You could be looking at one person’s side looks, or many people’s side looks, because you feel pressure which usually makes you more hesitant or cautious in doing something. Disclaimer: this is a very stereotypical Korean workplace setting. The Korean company I’m working in has nothing like that. (nervously looking… just kidding. :P)


Chinese Equivalent

What people haven’t seemed to be talking much about is the Chinese equivalent of “noonchi”, “眼色(yan3 se4)”, whose surface meaning is “eye color”. Instantly in my mind it clicks with the above mentioned “side look” because if you are looking at somebody from the corner of your eye, the colored part or your eye color is what he or she would see! If that is the case, is it a coincidence that the two words in Korean and Chinese seem to have some common logic behind?

Expressions:

To have/ not have the side look (noonchi) (눈치 있다/없다)

= To have/ not have the eye color 有眼色(you3 yan3 se4)/没眼色(mei2 yan3 se4)

To give noonchi to exert pressure or show disapproval (눈치 준다)

=To give the eye color 给眼色(gei3 yan3 se4)

To give noonchi to give a signal/hint (but not pressure) (눈치준다)

=To use the eye color 使眼色 (shi3 yan3 se4) : winking, squinting, moving your eyes in a certain direction, etc. etc. sometimes even with a subtle nod or headshake

To look at others’ side looks (noonchi) (눈치 본다)

=To look at one’s eye color 看眼色 (kan4 yan3 se4)


Bonus Expressions

To watch the mountain and water 看山水 (kan4 shan1 shui3)

To check the starting sign of things 轧苗头 (ga2 miao2 tou2)

These two slangs in Shanghai dialect are fun too. They emphasize less on tracking another person’s eyes but still mean to quickly detect what’s going on and change your action accordingly. The first one, I assume, has something to do with sailing, where you steer the boat based on how the mountains or rocks are located around and where the water flows. In the latter, the word 苗头 (miao2 tou2) conjures an image of the very tip of a blade of grass, meaning the very early signs of how something is developing.

* Here I am noting them as if the same characters are pronounced in Mandarin. It is not uncommon for people to use them this way either in writing or speaking, for humorous effect.