Happy Talk

Nunchi ninja or novice? The art of good manners, Korean-style

Christine Manby blushes when she recalls explaining the process of writing a novel to Hanif Kureshi. He looked very interested. Great nunchi, that man

Sunday 22 September 2019 18:47

One of the biggest complaints about the wellness industry is that it often tries to convince us we’ve got problems we didn’t know we had in the hope that we’ll fall for an expensive solution. This week, however, one of the latest self-help books drew my attention to an area in which many of us really are deficient. Nunchi. Have you got it? Have you got enough? Fortunately, Euny Hong is here to answer all our questions with her elegant manual The Power of Nunchi: The Korean Secret To Happiness and Success (Penguin, £12.99).

Nunchi – which is pronounced noon-chee – is a Korean concept, which translates literally as “eye measure”. In brief it’s the art of reading the room. Hong, who emigrated from the United States to Korea at the age of 12, calls it a “superpower”. The need to consider the feelings and motivations of other people in any interaction is something that Korean children learn almost before they’re able to walk and talk. It’s about social and emotional intelligence. Korean mothers scold their children for not having enough nunchi. No Korean parent ever smiled indulgently when their kid stuck its tongue out at a stranger or asked Grandma “Why are you so fat?” Manners are everything. To cause offence, even accidentally, is anathema. There are even children’s books on the subject. These childhood lessons are hammered home at school and later in the workplace.

I read The Power of Nunchi with a sinking feeling as Hong described the gaffes of a “No Nunchi” type, generously including some of her own faux pas as illustrations. She describes how, arriving late to a dinner party, she burst into the dining room loudly complaining about her journey, only to discover that she’d blundered in on another guest revealing a terminal cancer diagnosis. I recalled all those occasions when my own nunchi had deserted me. Like the time I asked a woman in the pilates studio changing room when her baby was due (it was already three months old). Or the time I explained the process of writing a novel to Hanif Kureshi. He looked very interested. Great nunchi, that man.

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