Learn how to read a room and act accordingly with the aid of nunchi, an ancient Korean way of being.
Nunchi – a 5,000-year-old practice which translates as “eye-measure” – enables you to ascertain people’s thoughts and emotions, according to Korean-American author, journalist and “nunchi ninja” Euny Hong. She attempts to guide non-Koreans, especially Westerners, in understanding this fundamentally Korean practice. Hong proves commercially au courant; other Eastern authors, such as de-cluttering specialist Marie Kondo, have found great success instructing Westerners in practices from their cultures.
Hong is a seasoned, successful journalist. Her book The Birth of Korean Cool: How One Nation Is Conquering the World Through Pop Culture is translated into seven languages and underscores her experience parsing Korean culture for non-Korean audiences. Winner of a Fulbright Beginning Professional Journalism Award, Hong has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. She also wrote a novel, Kept: A Comedy of Sex and Manners. She’s an able, skilled author.
Hong describes how people with high levels of nunchi observe a room and determine its “emotional energy” and how their energy can flow with it. Hong reminds readers that energy flow always changes. Nunchi helps you be aware of and adapt to those changes.
“Nunchi blockers” and Nunchi Ninjas
Certain nunchi principles appear in Western philosophy. The Bible, Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius and early Christians all mention aspects of nunchi. That doesn’t mean that nunchi is easy for Westerners to adopt. To embrace nunchi, Hong advises Westerners to evaluate culturally based beliefs known as nunchi blockers. For example, many Westerners believe empathy lets them understand another person’s feelings.
Empathy without nunchi is like words without grammar or syntax – meaningless noise.
Yet nunchi, Hong insists, observes other people from a mental and emotional distance. A nunchi ninja can figure out another person’s emotions. Koreans teach children to pay attention, listen and observe. The first glimmers of the nature of nunchi emerge in this section, along with daunting evidence suggesting – though the author seems unaware of this – that if you weren’t born into a nunchi culture, its subtleties might elude you.
With amusing understatement, Hong says that Westerners value noise over silence and celebrate the younger neocortex – or “monkey mind” – over the older limbic and reptilian parts of the brain. In nunchi, all aspects of the brain work together to cultivate stillness. Hong recommends solutions found in many self-help books. She suggests meditation, prayer and repeating silently to yourself what another person is saying to prevent you from interrupting.
Leave silence and space to allow people to come to you.
Westerners, Hong notes “reward pushy behavior”; Nunchi practitioners aim to be without “jagged edges.” To “stay round,” breathe deeply. Hong recommends that before responding to someone else, you should ask yourself, “What am I doing and why?” These exercises promote objectivity and calm.
Hong’s examples of how to tell if your nunchi needs work prove positively heartbreaking. She asks you to consider whether friends invite you to gatherings anymore or if, after you speak, everyone falls silent. The latter provides such a vivid picture of social failure. If that happened to you, of course, you would leap to learn nunchi.
Hong describes how no-nunchi archetypes remain sadly unaware of their surroundings. Hong ties this to two typical Western afflictions: anxiety and self-absorption. Another no-nunchi type is someone who believes all compliments. Hong suggests studying who pays you a compliment and why. She, like many self-help authors, advises never fearing the truth, even if it’s painful.
Pay Attention and Adapt
Hong’s guidelines for developing your nunchi skills are the practical high-water mark of her book. Readers can easily adapt and practice this advice. To exemplify nunchi, Hong quotes Bruce Lee: “Empty your cup, so that it may be filled.” Remove the thoughts you have about a situation. If you have already made up your mind – if you have a full cup – you won’t adjust to what’s happening. Another piece of advice she gives is to “honor the room” by entering consciously and free of assumptions. Hong also advises to take note of what’s occurring around you and to reassess the situation as time passes. She urges readers to be quiet when they can and to develop good manners that establish positive boundaries. Last but not least, Hong suggests to pay attention to people’s nonverbal language. She makes a telling and memorable point when she reminds Westerners that Koreans regard people who expect direct communication as having “an entitled attitude.”
Honor Your Instincts
Hong cautions to pay attention to your first impressions. They form your “nunchi hypothesis,” which you support or dispel based on further observation. Step back and consider – whether you’re analyzing a new colleague, a romantic interest or a boss.
Hong offers priceless advice: “Empty your mind” to observe and be attentive to a new person. Nunchi helps you reduce your desire to impress a potential romantic partner. This keeps you present.
Hong details how solid nunchi in a relationship means that each partner considers the feelings and needs of the other and how they radiate an energy that leads other people to enjoy them. This is a recurring theme: practicing nunchi changes your energy in ways that other people readily perceive and admire. This common self-help trope asserts that utilizing what the author offers will make people regard you more positively.
Hong relates how an office nunchi ninja might not be the smartest or hardest worker, but achieves promotions again and again. Consider how the nunchi ninja observes others before taking action. Hong states the obvious aloud when she tells readers that this skill is paramount in the workplace, where management and co-workers rarely tell the whole truth.
As befits a journalist, Hong writes in a breezy, naturalist style with an emphasis on making complex concepts simple and easy to understand. At times, this works to the reader’s advantage, but at others, Hong fails to communicate exactly how a Westerner might adopt the desirable aspects of a practice as complex and understated as nunchi. Those who want to grasp this elusive idea may have to read the book with great care and perhaps cover certain chapters more than once.