Want to be successful and feel at ease in any social situation? Try harnessing this Korean super-power. Liz Frost tries it out
Have you ever put your foot in your mouth? Think of the person at the bar who says to his miserable companions, ‘Cheer up, who died?’ only to realise there’s a wake being held, or the plus-one at a wedding reception who congratulates the silver fox groom on his daughter’s big day. Social faux pas happen to the best of us, but according to Euny Hong, author of The Power of Nunchi, there’s a surefire way to avoid them forever, and it’s a practice called Nunchi.
“Nunchi [noon-chee, which translates as ‘eye measure’] is the art of reading a room,” explains Euny. “It’s a way of sensing what people are thinking and feeling based on nonverbal cues, with the aim of creating harmony and a sense of wellbeing both for yourself and for others.”
Euny’s book is full of examples just like those above, of people jumping feet first into social interactions and coming away looking like a fool, or worse still, making others feel uncomfortable. Nunchi offers a way to be more mindful in engaging others by looking for subtle cues to ensure your foot remains well away from your mouth at all times. It sounds like something I’d be interested in mastering.
For me, silence often feels like a dark gaping chasm that needs something sprinkling into it. I’ll fill it with a curious question or tell a handy anecdote. I’ll offer round some biscuits or comment on the decor. I’d always assumed this was something people appreciated about me – that I was somehow saving them from drowning in the quiet. According to Euny, though, this is the very opposite of nunchi. It’s anti-nunchi.
“Most people can’t stand even a fivesecond lull in a conversation,” she says, “which is why people are constantly on their phones.” The trick is to be present and use that silence to read the room.
So how exactly do we apply nunchi to our everyday lives? “When you first enter a room, say at a party or your office,” Euny continues, “remember that you’re the new one and everyone else was there before you. “Look to everyone else for clues on how to act. Let’s say you’re late for a work meeting. Just sit down or quietly, apologise for being late and leave it at that. Don’t make some joke or go into some unnecessary long explanation about how you were late because the building doorman was telling you about his crazy weekend. First, look around. Are people tense and upset? They were probably discussing bad news before you arrived and now you’ve made everyone uncomfortable.”
I decide to try it out on a Zoom meeting with a brand new book group. As faces appear on my screen, I say hi, smile politely then remain quiet and watch for social cues – which feels a little trickier through a laptop. Before long, some small-talk ensues. We cover off covid, working from home and the recent delights of the middle aisle at Aldi, before moving on to discuss the book. At the end of the call, we log off, having had a successful non-awkward social interaction.
While I am pleased with my nunchi progress, as I close my laptop, I don’t feel quite ‘satisfied’. I want to know what makes other people tick, I realise, not just what their experience of the recent weather has been. This realisation brings with it another: because of this, I often take social risks – asking personal questions or using untested humour to make a connection. My social interactions are often off-the-cuff, and luckily tend to land with a 90 percent hit rate, but without practising nunchi, am I continually leaving myself open to potential mishaps?
“The main misconception is that nunchi is about empathy. They’re linked, but really quite different,” explains Euny. “Empathy means putting yourself in the other person’s shoes. But too much empathy can be dangerous. If you are always in another’s shoes, then where are you? You disappear. Nunchi is more like being a Sherlock Holmes-type observer,” explains Euny. “You stand your ground and remain firmly yourself while you gather information.”
On Saturday, another opportunity presents. My son makes friends with two boys at the park and I’m invited to sit on the grass with their respective mums. With Euny’s words ringing in my ears, I hang back and observe quietly. As the conversation flows naturally between us, it becomes clear that these two women are already friends and that one of them is going through a divorce. I can’t help thinking this could have been a potential minefield had I not had my new nunchi powers engaged. I listen as she talks about how much better things will be now, how free she feels, but I also watch as she absently twists the empty space on her ring finger; draws bitten down fingernails through unwashed hair. She’s telling us what she wants us to know, but also showing us how she really feels. Instead of trying to put myself in her shoes, I remain steadfastly in my own and recognise my place as an accidental witness to her pain.
An awkward silence arises as the other woman nips to the loo and I instinctively search for a platitude to dust off and serve up, but if there’s one thing this experience has taught me, it’s that it isn’t my responsibility to save people from the quiet – so instead I fill it with some eye contact and a smile.
According to Euny, when you master Nunchi, you will likely find people are more likely to open up to you because you’ve created an atmosphere of trust, whether they realise it or not. And she’s right.
“Thanks for listening,” the mum says, after a short pause, and I feel as though a butterfly has landed on me.
Although it takes some practise and restraint, applying nunchi to a social interaction is like saving up for something you really want instead of sticking it on a credit card – and it will save you many blushes in the long-term too.
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