You just walked out of your first business meeting in Seoul and you have no idea what just happened. You have to report back to your boss in Canada and you can’t even say if your proposal was received positively, neutrally or negatively. You’re not even sure if there will be a follow up meeting or if it’s all over. You went in there expecting some feedback, suggestions, maybe even a “let’s do it!” But what you got was what you perceived to be vagueness and a lack of commitment. What were you missing? The answer is nunchi!
Nunchi (눈치) is the subtle skill of being able to read your counterpart’s moods or true feelings, and knowing how to act accordingly. It is a concept specific to Korean culture and is somewhat difficult to describe because it does not have an exact Canadian cultural equivalent. It is perhaps most akin to “reading” someone, or “feeling out a situation” when things are not explicitly stated. Nunchi is important in a high context culture such as Korea, where communication is less verbally direct, and where more meaning is derived from the context of a situation, including non-verbal and indirect cues within a particular context.
As Canadians, we are used to a lower-context communication style, especially in the workplace where “yes” generally means “yes” and “no” means “no” – sometimes so directly that we end up feeling bad, especially depending on other people’s personal communication styles. Generally (and there are always exceptions), Koreans are less direct and rely more heavily on non-verbal cues. In Korea, “yes” may mean something more like “it’s a good idea, but I know it won’t be approved by my superior and I don’t want you to feel badly, so I’ll say yes”. This does not mean that Koreans never say no, nor does it mean that you are being lied to. Among collectivistic societies where the group is very important, maintaining harmony is extremely important – more important in some cases than giving an explicit answer that may make another person feel bad. Think of it as a sort of extreme form of tact.
If you find that developing nunchi to be an exercise in frustration, you’re not alone – there are many Korean people struggling with these types of situations every day. But they have had a lifetime to develop their own nunchi, and are far more acutely aware of some of the subtle cues that signal them to reach the right conclusion, and to take the next step accordingly. It may take some time, but in the end everyone is happy and harmony is preserved.
Learning about nunchi can make your business and social interactions in Korea much more satisfying – and clear. Here are a few tips on how to develop your nunchi:
1) Observe, observe, observe. A sideways glance, a deep inhaling through the teeth, a pause before an answer, or the signalling of the end of a meeting may all be cues that things have not gone as well as you may have thought.
2) Talk to your Korean friends about it. They will surely have some stories about nunchi.
3) Spend time in Korea and with others! There’s no better way to develop nunchi than “nunchying” yourself!