In an increasingly global world, far more of us now have to communicate and build relationships across cultures. We often hear about the challenges of this—for example, Erin Meyer’s The Culture Map talks about how you might overcome some of the difficulties. However, we often forget that other cultures can also give us tools and concepts that may help us to navigate this global world in a more nuanced way.

One such concept is the Korean idea of nunchi. This is most notably discussed in a book by Korean-American writer Euny Hong, The Power of Nunchi: The Korean Secret to Happiness and Success. 

Reading the room

Nunchi translates literally as ‘eye-measure’. It is the art of being able to ‘read the room’ to understand how people are feeling—and then use that as a way to build trust and connection. If you think this sounds very similar to the Western idea of emotional intelligence, you are not wrong. However,  two key differences between nunchi and emotional intelligence:

The first is that nunchi is about seeing a room as a whole. You should view a room as an ‘organism’, rather than a group of individual people. In other words, it has a life of its own, separate from the lives of the individuals within it. This is a somewhat alien concept to those brought up on the individualism of the West. However, in reality, it is a good reflection of how groups behave. Consider, for example, group behaviours such as the Abilene paradox, where a group comes to a decision that none of the individuals actually supports, simply because none of them wants to damage the perceived group harmony. It is also reflected in concepts such as ‘reading the room’, or being aware of the atmosphere and responding to it.

The second difference from emotional intelligence is that nunchi is all about speed. Hong explains that Koreans are not lauded for ‘good’ but ‘quick’ nunchi. It is crucial to be able to process social information quickly, because it changes from moment to moment—and you need to be able to detect those changes. 

Developing nunchi

Korean children are taught about nunchi from a very early age. It is a skill that is actively cultivated there. However, it is also possible to develop it later in life. The first thing to do is to empty and open your mind. You need to be able to take in new information and process it. It follows that you also need to be fully present in the room: focused on what is going on, not on the message you just received, or what you are going to have for dinner later. 

Nunchi may rely on speed, but Hong’s top tips for developing it are all about waiting. She highlights the importance of being aware of the effect of your arrival on a room. Take a few moments to feel the atmosphere, to make sure that your actions and words will be appropriate. If everyone is engaged in an activity, don’t try to break it up or distract them. Instead, wait quietly to see what is happening. 

Similarly, never underestimate the value of saying nothing. In the West, we often feel pressure to fill gaps in a conversation. It can be wise to resist this, and simply listen instead. Take the time to focus on non-verbal cues instead of words, because these give you valuable information about mood and emotion.

Hong also emphasises the importance of manners as a way to make people feel more comfortable. This also makes sense. Broadly speaking, manners are simply social conventions, but good manners go far beyond so-called etiquette. It was once said of Queen Elizabeth II that if a guest used the wrong cutlery or their fingers to eat, she would do so too, to make them feel more comfortable. That’s good manners. It is about responding to the cues given by others, rather than what you expected to see, and acting in a way that makes them feel good.

From intent to impact: the thought leadership path

it is worth touching lightly on the difference between intent and impact. Intent is what you meant. It is inside your head. Impact is the effect of your actions on others. It is external. Nunchi relies on getting beyond intent to impact. It doesn’t matter what you meant. What matters is the effect that you had on the comfort of those around you.