Living in Seoul, I would be approached on occasion by Koreans saying, “Mr. Douglas, I know exactly what you’re thinking, it’s easy, I know.” With a nod and quizzical reply of, “Oh, really?” to which I’d say to myself, “I don’t think so!! That’s Hogwash!” However, as I learned more about Korean history, society, and culture it began to make some sense. It makes a lot of sense.
Imagine a husband and wife that have lived in the same house, eaten the same meals, watched the same tv shows have had the same basic conversations for the past 50 – 60 years. After that length of time, they can virtually read each other’s minds. Now, take the same general idea, add a few thousand years of being taught to think and behave the same way and you get what Asia scholar, Boye De Mente calls, Korea’s cultural telepathy. Koreans know this as nunchi. It is so crucial to the Korean way of life, that many consider Korea’s culture as basically a Nunchi culture.
It has been noted that the older, more structured, pure, and exclusive society is, the more its citizens communicate nonverbally. Through centuries of imposed, deliberate, and comprehensive programming, Koreans have become culturally attuned with each other’s thinking and behavior. They will think alike and act alike to such an extent that they can seemingly “read” each other’s minds. Koreans will, however, at times apply their understanding of each other (nunchi) to foreigners. Resulting in the belief that what a foreigner thinks is the same as them.
Bamboozled by k – days
As an ex-pat in the foreign business community, it was common to hear others speak of their confusion and frustrations working alongside Korean colleagues. “I’m having a K-day again” was often heard from ex-pat describing times when we would be bamboozled by Korean’s ways of thinking and acting. They seemed to be on a completely different wavelength to us. One example would be during staff meetings. If the sound of air being sucked in through the mouth was heard it meant a clear, “No.” Whatever it was, it was “No” neither acceptable nor possible. This and other forms of Nunchi would be clearly understood by everyone at the meeting. Yet, for ex-pats like myself, we would be left in the dark wondering what heck was going on.
The role nunchi plays in daily life
There are, however, approaches that have proven to be most useful. A good place to start is to appreciate how large and long a role nunchi plays and has played in daily life. And, to realize that these nonverbals are understood throughout Korea in pretty much the same way. This makes sense considering that for thousands of years, Koreans were encouraged and at times, forced to think and behave alike. This is how it is and has been for centuries.
What makes this difficult is that it’s opposite to North America and western Europe, where individuals are told to think and act for themselves – independent of others, whether family or workmates.
Ask a Korean for help
Another useful strategy is to develop a close friendship with a Korean at work. Take advantage of this and ask lots of questions as to why something has happened. But do so in private over a bottle of beer. Explain you are just interested in learning as much as possible about Korean culture and its people. In no way make your questions condescending or possibly misunderstood as a slight against them or anyone. And certainly, never against the Korean nation, history, traditions, or culture.
As you become more knowledgeable of nunchi some very practical benefits will appear. The first being that it helps to reduce your levels of overall stress, frustration, and bewilderment. What at first seemed very odd, is now seen in an entirely new light.
A second benefit is a direct result of less stress. Korea and all Asian cultures place special esteem on the person who can remain calm, cool, and composed in all situations. To Asians, there is no clearer demonstration of leadership, competence, value, inner strength, and high character. The importance of diplomatic restraint and tact cannot be overestimated. This is an extremely important skill set to have as it is valued in every culture throughout Asia. It is not uncommon for Asian to use the strategy of upsetting the foreigner to their advantage.
Greater insights – Greater business success
Finally, watch out for examples of Nunchi. This requires a closer observation of Korean nonverbals, like breathing sounds or hand gestures. By doing so, the foreigner will gain greater insights into the nature of the Korean people. They will learn what is really being communicated and how to respond appropriately. All of which leads to less stress, better relationships, and greater profits.