Monday 23 September 2019

The Autumn Life Audit: Introducing 'Nunchi' - the Korean superpower that will change your life

Nunchi, the art of understanding what others are thinking and feeling, will open doors you never even knew existed, writes Euny Hong

You can benefit from nunchi in any social situation
You can benefit from nunchi in any social situation

Euny Hong

Why does everyone say Jeannie is "the perfect hostess" when your strawberry tarts have won prizes and you have a much better stereo? Why does Colin at work get promoted much further than his abilities indicate he could or should? Why do admin staff who say "no" to everyone else, bend the rules for Eileen?

The answer: those people have excellent nunchi.

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Nunchi, a Korean word that translates as "eye-measure", is the Korean superpower. It 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.

"Half of public life is nunchi," is a well-known Korean expression. 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 a par with teaching them to look both ways before crossing the street and or not to hit their sibling.

Now, in the west, nunchi's time has not just arrived, it is long overdue.

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, it 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. And you already have all the tools you will ever need - your eyes and your ears.

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 losing your advantages in life than a lack of nunchi.

So if you're thinking this is jus 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. That's all down to nunchi.They 'eye-measured' what various countries needed and wanted to plan their export strategy. If you're doubting that it worked, ask yourself why K-pop is even a thing.

In everyday life, you can use nunchi to great social and professional advantage. People who are genuinely admired and well-liked (as opposed to just popular) have great nunchi, which can be boiled down to two traits. First, they see the room as a collective, not honing in on specific people. And second, they heed the advice of the Greek philosopher Epictetus: "We are given two ears and one mouth that we may listen twice as much as we speak."

He didn't call this nunchi of course, but that is very 'nunchi-ful' advice right there. As soon as they enter a room, they take the 'room temperature'. Are people jovial or sombre? Who is by the booze, who is huddled with whom? Which couple looks as though they had a fight right before arriving?

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. Everyone is a contributing member of this boonwigi just by virtue of 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.

People who understand this are the ones who make real, lasting friendships. They're the ones who refill your glass before you even notice it's empty. They sense when you have something to say but you keep getting interrupted, and they pointedly ask you, "what do you make of all this?"

READ MORE: Work smart: How to leave your 9-5 and have a 'free-range career'

You can benefit from nunchi in any social situation. On a first date? The nunchi-deficient will go on about how they're a great cook and speak seven languages. But they're cheating themselves out of a valuable opportunity to read the other person. If you pay attention to reading the other person - or better yet, the whole room - your focus moves away from yourself, which has a magically calming effect. Who doesn't want to dissipate the nervousness we all inevitably feel on a first date?

You need nunchi in the office just as much as you need it in your personal life. The office is not a trust-based environment. It is the epicentre of doublespeak and passive-aggressive communication. Even if you love your colleagues and think your boss is a genius, it's best to keep your nunchi switched on at all times.

Being good at workplace nunchi means reading what is being said between the lines of the official corporate announcement. Sure, it sounds charming when someone leaves the company to "pursue new opportunities" or '"spend more time with their family", but most of us know that is simply an approved way of saying they've lost their job.

What else isn't being said in your work environment? Use your nunchi to scratch beneath the surface. For example, your office may have a low-level employee who keeps making errors. Before you yell at them, take the time to use your eyes and ears to see how others interact with them. Does this sam colleague never seem to get in trouble? Are even the higher-ups polite to them? If so, this person is being protected by someone powerful within the organisation. Be nice.

If you are running a meeting and need to get your team on your side, always - ALWAYS - offer bite-sized treats at the beginning. It needn't be lunch or anything fancy; even passing around a box of mini chocolate bars is fine. Don't leave it in the middle of the table; pass it to the person on your left and tell everyone to take one and pass it down. This energy circle you have created is a powerful unifying force that will make everyone cooperate better with one another.

Negotiating a pay rise? Don't forget to use your nunchi to pick the best moment. Are people crying in the bathroom? Has your boss been in meetings all day, looking annoyed after each one? Has the CEO just given a presentation explaining that revenues are down? Don't pick that day.

Interviewing for a new job? Listen twice as much as you speak. Usually, the interviewer likes to assert their authority by talking a great deal without asking you about yourself -let them carry on. They will feed you everything you need to say without even realising it.

No matter what surprises await you in any room or situation, be confident that you have all the tools you need to make people respond harmoniously to you and vice versa, and make the universe bend a little to your will. You don't have to be the best in order to win; all you need is your eyes and your ears. Nunchi is the currency of life.

The Power of Nunchi by Euny Hong is published by Penguin

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