The Power of Nunchi: The Korean Secret to Happiness and Success

The Power of Nunchi: The Korean Secret to Happiness and Success

by Euny Hong
The Power of Nunchi: The Korean Secret to Happiness and Success

The Power of Nunchi: The Korean Secret to Happiness and Success

by Euny Hong


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"A must-read for anyone interested in the art of intuitively knowing what others feel." —Haemin Sunim, bestselling author of The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down and Love for Imperfect Things

Improve your nunchi. Improve your life.

The Korean sixth sense for winning friends and influencing people, nunchi (pronounced noon-chee) can help you connect with others so you can succeed in everything from business to love. The Power of Nunchi will show you how.

Have you ever wondered why your less-skilled coworker gets promoted before you, or why that one woman from your yoga class is always surrounded by adoring friends? They probably have great nunchi. The art of reading a room and understanding what others are thinking and feeling, nunchi is a form of emotional intelligence that anyone can learn—all you need are your eyes and ears. Sherlock Holmes has great nunchi. Cats have great nunchi. Steve Jobs had great nunchi. With its focus on observing others rather than asserting yourself—it's not all about you!—nunchi is a refreshing antidote to our culture of self-promotion, and a welcome reminder to look up from your cell phone.

Nunchi has been used by Koreans for more than 5,000 years. It's what catapulted their nation from one of the world's poorest to one of the richest and most technologically advanced in half a century. And it's why K-pop—an unlikely global phenomenon, performed as it is in a language spoken only in Korea—is even a thing. Not some quaint Korean custom like taking off your shoes before entering a house, nunchi is the currency of life. The Power of Nunchi will show you how the trust and connection it helps you to build can open doors for you that you never knew existed.


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780143134466
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 11/05/2019
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 321,640
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.10(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

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 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.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

What is Nunchi?

Nunchi (noon-chee): "eye-measure," or the subtle art of gauging other people's thoughts and feelings to build harmony, trust, and connection.

Let's imagine you have just started a new job at a big company, and you're invited to a party where you want to make a great impression. When you walk into the room, everyone is laughing a bit too hard at the not-particularly-funny joke of an older woman you've never seen before. Do you:

A) Step in with a really funny joke, definitely much better than the one you just heard. Your new colleagues are going to love this!

B) Laugh along with the others, even though it's not very amusing.

C) Find a tactful moment to introduce yourself to the older woman, who you've correctly assumed must be the head of the company.

If you chose A, you seriously need to work on your nunchi. If you chose B, good work, you read the room correctly and picked up the right cues from your new colleagues. If you chose C, congratulations, you're already on your way to mastering the power of 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.

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.

There's an old Korean expression about the power of nunchi: "If you have quick nunchi, you can eat shrimp in a monastery." Admittedly, this makes no sense until you understand that traditional Korean Buddhist monas-teries are strictly vegetarian. In other words, the laws bend to your will.

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.

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.

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.

It now manufactures most of the world's semiconductors and smartphones. It is the only member nation of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) that started out as a borrower of money and then became a lender of money.

Sure, some of that was down to the usual luck, hard work, and a little help from their friends, but if it were that simple, any number of other developing nations could have achieved exactly the same thing. Yet none did. The Korean economic miracle has always been based on nunchi: the ability to "eye-measure" other nations' rapidly evolving needs, to manufacture export products that evolve as quickly as those needs, and to recalibrate plans based on the universe's only constant-change.

If you still question the value of nunchi, ask yourself why K-pop is even a thing.

Nunchi is woven throughout all aspects of Korean society. Korean parents teach their children about the importance of nunchi from a very young age, on par with lessons such as "Look both ways before crossing the street" and "Don't hit your sister." "Why do you have no nunchi?!" is a common parental chastisement. As a child, I remember having accidentally offended a family friend, and defending myself to my father by saying, "I didn't mean to upset Jinny's mother." To which my father replied, "The fact that the harm wasn't intentional doesn't make it better. It makes it worse."

Some Westerners might find my dad's criticism difficult to understand. What parent would prefer that their child be mean deliberately rather than accidentally? But think of it another way: children who choose to be mean at least know what they hope to achieve by it, whether that's getting even with a sibling or winding up a parent. But a child who doesn't even know what consequences their words have on people? A child with no nunchi? No matter how sweet and kind they are, they are likely to be on the losing end of life, unless this cluelessness is trained out of them.

Some are born with nunchi, some achieve nunchi, and some have nunchi thrust upon them. I had it thrust upon me. When I was twelve years old, my family moved from the U.S. to South Korea. I didn't speak the language at all, yet I was enrolled in a Korean public school. This was the best nunchi crash course I could have had, because I had to assimilate into a foreign culture with zero linguistic clues. In order to work out what was happening in my new country, I had to be hyperreliant on my nunchi, which became my sixth sense.

What made it even more challenging was the huge nunchi gap between the U.S. and Korea. In the U.S., interactions are informal, and you can get by with minimal nunchi. Americans don't bow to each other; the language doesn't have a "polite" versus "familiar" hierarchy; and you can call grown-ups by their first names. By contrast, the Korean culture and language are hierarchical and full of more rules than there are stars in the sky. For example, Koreans cannot even call their own older siblings by their first names; it has to be an honorific such as "older brother" or "older sister." According to Confucian principles, a harmonious society requires everyone to know their place and act accordingly. Problem: if I didn't even know what to call my own siblings any more, I was 100 times more clueless as to how to behave in a Korean school.

I had no lever to pull except for watching what the other schoolkids were doing. That's how I learned two cardinal rules of nunchi: 1) if everyone is doing the same thing, there is always a reason. I had no idea how to stand at attention, or at ease; all I knew was that everyone else was doing it, so I studied their bodies closely and mimicked what they did; 2) if you wait long enough, most of your questions will be answered without your having to say a word. Which was great, because I didn't know any words.

This nunchi trial by fire helped me understand what was expected of me, it opened my mind up to love learning, and it also made the teachers and students more patient with me. Just over a year after arriving in Korea, I was first in my class and a prize-winning math and physics student. Within eighteen months, I was elected class vice president and was given the authority to hit other students (a slightly dubious privilege given to the favored few). All of this, despite the fact that my Korean was still terrible, and I still got made fun of for my Western ways. But I am living proof that you don't have to be the best in order to win-as long as you have quick nunchi.

Yes, I was a hard worker, but studying alone wouldn't have got me far without nunchi. Nunchi is what can turn a huge handicap (in my case, no knowledge of Korean) into an unexpected advantage: because the teachers were always talking too fast for me to follow their words properly or take many notes, I had to discern from the teachers' faces and tones of voice when they were saying something really important, as in they were probably going to include that topic in the exams. Loud voice, I learned = you will be tested on this. I also noticed, for example, that my seventh-grade physics teacher would hit her palm gently with a stick when she was trying to drive a point home. (Teachers carried sticks at all times; they were wooden bits of hardware covered with electrical tape. Usually they were for beating students.) So even though I was still a dunce and could barely take notes, the teachers were "telling" us what was going to be included in the exam without actually telling us.

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 overall context, which has countless factors: body language, facial expressions, tradition, who else is present, and even silence. In Korea, what is not being said is every bit as important as the words that are spoken, and a person who pays attention merely to the words is getting just half the story. But this in no way means that you need nunchi only in Korea. Even in the West, life is full of high-context scenarios requiring your nunchi-even if you didn't know such a word existed.

You Need Nunchi

You have surely noticed that the more important a situation is, the greater the likelihood that the most crucial information is not expressed out loud, or not expressed truthfully. Nunchi might be your only ally in such moments.

When it comes to the practical application of nunchi in daily life, it's important to understand that the unit of nunchi is the room. What I mean by this is that the object of your observation should not be an individual, but should be the room as a whole and how the individuals within it are acting and reacting.

Have you ever been in a room when a famous person 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 nunchi in action: an awareness of the cues we get from others.

You may not think of a room as a single living, breathing organism, but it is. It has its own "temperature," "barometric pressure," volume, mood-and these are in constant flux. Koreans talk of a room as having a boonwigi-the room's atmosphere or wellness level, so to speak. Everyone is a contributing member of this boonwigi just by being there. Act with no nunchi, and you ruin the boonwigi for the whole room. Act with great, or "quick," nunchi, and you can enhance the atmosphere of the room for everyone.

It may help to think of a room as a beehive. Even if everyone seems to be acting independently, a part of their brain is contributing to the hive mind. Everyone has a role. Including you. Your job? To work out what your role is.

Until you discover your role-and even after you do-you should always be "eye-assessing": a fruitful activity with immediate benefits! You don't have to be anxious about doing or saying the right thing if you remember your primary activity is eye-assessment.

So what is it that you're observing? 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?"

And why should you care about what vibes you are transmitting? It is best expressed in a saying often attributed to Maya Angelou: "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."

Here are some examples of poor nunchi. If you can recall similar incidents, think about the consequences you or others suffered as a result:

• You walk into a room and see people looking somber. You joke, "Where's the funeral?" only to discover that someone's father literally just died.

• Your boss is slamming doors and for some reason you hear people crying in the office toilets. That's the day you choose to ask your boss for a pay raise.

• You're at an "open house" for a prestigious company where you are angling to get a job. You spend the whole time trying to impress an employee because he has a flashy tie and acts important. Only later, when you get a text from him asking, "Care for dinner and a play?" do you discover that he was chatting you up. You also learn that the disheveled lot whom you'd assumed were interns were in fact the people running the company.

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. Being aware of your preconceptions, and learning how they can inhibit your powers of observation and adaptation, is a key part of honing your nunchi. Most of us understand that different situations require different behaviors-we don't act the same way at a funeral as we would at a birthday party-but sometimes the very familiarity of a situation can blind us to the fact that everything in it has changed, and so should we.

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