Have you ever been in a situation where you realize that you’re unsure of how to act properly — maybe in a group, a meeting, or even a conversation?
The Korean superpower — besides amazingly fresh food, iconic fashions, and addictive Kpop music — is a magic word known as 눈치 or the romanized nunchi.
Nunchi is the subtle art of listening and gauging another person’s mood — essentially a form of emotional intelligence. This is done through interpreting subtleties like body language, mood, facial expression and tone.
And it can be used to your advantage when you’re looking to secure a job, have a tough conversation, introduce yourself to someone, or simply practice advanced empathy in social situations.
It can also save you from public embarrassment.
Like, a rather painful example: you enter a room, the people in it appeal to be mellow, and you shout out, gleefully, “Jeez! Who died?” and someone’s family member or spouse actually just died.
Not every situation will be that brutal, but you get the idea. Nunchi is a tool that will prevent you from falling on your face with your words.
It sounds easier than it is. But nunchi expert Euny Hong outlines exactly how to practice The Power of Nunchi in her latest book — here is a tl;dr version.
The temptation is to talk and get your point across constantly. Enter silently and let the other person speak first.
Bite your tongue and let them talk — this way, they’ll feel more comfortable and likely continue talking. If you keep your mouth shut, the other person will end up revealing more to fill the silence.
Hear exactly what other people are saying, without trying to think of how to respond to it. Give them your full undivided attention.
Western culture tends to value extroversion more than introversion, so it’s expected that you’ll talk a lot and that other people will talk a lot. An easy way to gain an advantage is to listen — most people are too busy talking or planning what they are going to say to hear what others are already saying.
The money is in the moment. Pick up on as many verbal cues as you can. When you do speak, you’ll have correctly read the room and be able to match the mood.
Not everything is about you. Does your boss or partner seem anxious, upset, or angry? Don’t respond irrationally; think. You have to “lose your preconceptions in order to observe with discernment.”
Instead, ask. Get the other person talking with an open-ended question. Have an open mind, and observe as much as you can before you decide what you know.
Slight gestures and facial or bodily movements can give a lot away. Is the person fidgeting, looking all around but not making eye contact?
Is their face slightly puffy to suggest they could’ve been crying? Do they seem stressed? Get good at reading micro-expressions.
Become an observer of people. Watch how they interact with others and, to make them comfortable, mirror their tone of voice and behavior.
Read between the lines and practice manners.
Hong tells the following story.
You host a family of refugees. They’re quiet and polite at first. One night at dinner, the mother asks, “Do many people in this country eat pork, like you?” You don’t think much of it. “Yes, if they like it,” you reply.
Later, the father asks the same question. You brush it off. Only one month later you find that they don’t eat pork for religious reasons — they are Muslim.
You never thought to ask, and they didn’t want to be rude by refusing to eat.
Cultural barriers can sometimes inhibit us in ways we don’t understand. The host didn’t understand why they had a problem with the pork because she didn’t take the time to chip away at those barriers.
Although you may be well-versed in the etiquette of your own culture, when you’re dining with someone of another culture, or in another part of the world, the nunchi practice is to educate yourself.
Your lack of nunchi will be more noticeable than your use of it — and not just in Korea. Some people “just can’t take a hint” or can’t “read the room” and you don’t want to be those people.
By developing this underrated skill, you’ll be armed with the confidence to succeed in social situations of all kinds and get farther in life than you would without it.