Discover trust, harmony and connection with The Power of Nunchi by Euny Hong
Have you ever wondered why a colleague gained a promotion, or how a friend is always catch the bartender's eye? It could be they are skilled in the Korean art of nunchi (noon-chee). In The Power of Nunchi Euny Hong is putting a modern spin on an ancient concept, which will help you understand the subtle skill of gauging other people's thoughts, and feelings in order to build trust, harmony and connection. Not a new fad by any means, nunchi has been practised for over 5000 years in Korea, and now you can learn the techniques for yourself.
In a piece especially adapted for Foyles and taken from the introduction of the book, Euny Hong introduces some of the basics.
There’s an old Korean expression: ‘If you have quick nunchi, you can eat shrimp in a monastery.’ Admittedly, this makes no sense until you understand that traditional Korean Buddhist monasteries are strictly vegetarian. In other words, the laws bend to your will if you can harness the power of nunchi.
So what is nunchi? Nunchi is the Korean superpower. Some people even go so far as to say it’s how Korean people can read minds – though there’s nothing supernatural about it. Nunchi is the art of instantly understanding what people are thinking and feeling, in order to improve your relationships in life. 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. Speed is paramount to nunchi; in fact, if someone is highly skilled at nunchi, Koreans don’t say they have ‘good’ nunchi, they say they have ‘quick’ nunchi.
So if you’re thinking, ‘Oh dear, not another Eastern fad – I’ve already thrown away half my clothes thanks to Marie Kondo,’ first of all, it’s not a fad. Koreans have been using nunchi to evade or overcome more than 5,000 years’ worth of slings and arrows. You need only look to recent Korean history to see nunchi at work: the country went from Third World to First World in just half a century. Only seventy years ago, after the Korean War, South Korea was one of the world’s poorest nations – poorer than most of sub-Saharan Africa. To make matters worse, it had no natural resources at all: not a drop of oil, not an ounce of copper. By the twenty-first century, South Korea had become one of the richest, coolest and most technologically advanced nations on the planet.
I was not born with innate nunchi. I had it thrust upon me in a trial by fire when I was 12 years old—the year my family moved to South Korea. I’d only ever lived in the US and I spoke no Korean at all, yet I was placed in the local Korean school. It turns out this was the best nunchi crash course I could have hoped for.
Since I didn’t understand the language, I had no lever to pull except for studying the classroom ‘mood’ and watching how the students and teachers were reacting to each other. That’s how I learned two cardinal rules of nunchi. Firstly, if everyone is doing the same thing, there is always a reason. I had no idea how to stand at attention or at ease, something regularly expected of students. All I knew was that everyone else was doing it, so I studied their bodies closely and mimicked what they did. The second rule is if you stay quiet and observe long enough, most of your questions will be answered without you needing to do anything at all. Which was great, because I didn’t know any words. Within a year of arriving at Korean school, I was first in my class and only six months later, I was voted class vice president by my peers. I’m living proof that nunchi works.
Everyone can improve their lot by honing their nunchi; you don’t have to be privileged, know the right people or have an impressive academic pedigree. In fact, Koreans refer to nunchi as ‘the advantage of the underdog’ for just those reasons. It’s your secret weapon, even if you’ve got nothing else. As for those who were born with a silver spoon in their mouth, well, there is no faster way to lose your advantages in life than a lack of nunchi. In the short term, nunchi will save you from social embarrassment – you can’t make a faux pas if you’ve read the room correctly. In the long term, nunchi will make the waters part for you. People will open doors that you never even knew existed. Nunchi will help you live your best life.
As Koreans say, ‘Half of public life is about nunchi.’ 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. It can make people take your side even when they aren’t sure why. Conversely, a lack of nunchi can make people dislike you in a way that is as mysterious to them as it is to you.
Euny Hong is the author of The Birth of Korean Cool and a journalist who has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, and the Financial Times. A self-described `nunchi ninja', at age twelve she moved with her family from suburban Chicago to South Korea, not knowing Korean, and within a year was at the top of her class - thanks to her nunchi. She divides her time between New York and Paris and is fluent in English, Korean, French, German - and nunchi.