Living in Seoul I’d 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. In fact, 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 and have had the same conversations for the past 50 – 60 years. After that length of time they can virtually read each others mind. Now, take the same general idea, add a few thousand years and you have what Asia scholar, Boye De Mente calls, Korea’s cultural telepathy. Koreans know this as nunchi. It’s so crucial to the Korean way of life, that many consider Korea’s culture as basically a Nunchi culture.
As a rule, the older, more structured, pure, and exclusive a society is, the more its citizens can communicate nonverbally. This is certainly the case in Korea. Through centuries of imposed, deliberate and comprehensive programming, Koreans have become culturally attuned with each other’s thinking and behaviour. As a result, they will think alike and act alike to such an extent that they can seemingly “read” another’s thoughts and emotions.
Being a member of the foreign business community, it was common to hear other expats speak of their frustrations working alongside Koreans. “I’m having a K-day again” Which was our code for encountering situations where we would completely misunderstand a Korean’s thinking or behaviour. This was made even worse as Korean workmates would give only vague reasons why something was happening or what they were thinking.
To Koreans, how they act and think, is no mystery whatsoever, this is just Nunchi being played out in the workplace. But for us foreigners, we are at a serious disadvantage. Especially, when nunchi occupies such a massive role in the daily and business life of Korea.
To fully understand nunchi can mean years of study, observation, and experience from living and working there. A good place to start, however, is to appreciate how large a role nunchi plays in a Korean’s life. To accept, as best we can, that these nonverbal communications are similarly understood the same way amongst them. Also, that Koreans can at times extend and apply nunchi to foreigners. Resulting in the conviction that what a foreigner thinks is the same as them.
Another 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. 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 anyone. And certainly not against the Korean nation itself.
As in all of Asia, the key to business success is to build trusting, harmonious relationships. Knowing about nunchi and how large a part it plays in Korean business and daily life gives you practical benefits These being how better to work with Koreans and to build good relationships that lead to greater profits.
If, and when, you’re next in Korea and someone out of the blue says, “I know what you’re thinking” you’ll know that this is Korea’s cultural telepathy or nunchi in action.