Nunchi, spelled 눈치 in Korean and literally meaning ‘eye measure’, is a concept you’ll inevitably have to deal with when living in Korea. Nunchi is a set of unspoken rules governing interpersonal relationships and can loosely be translated as ‘awareness of your surroundings’ or ’emotional intelligence’. Generally speaking, you can use the word in five different ways:
1. To have or not have nunchi (눈치가 있다/없다)
You’ll sometimes hear people say about someone that they have no nunchi (눈치 없다) meaning that they are socially awkward or lack any natural feel for the situation.
A: 그 사람 왜 이래? Why is he acting like that?
B: 그러게. 진짜 눈치 없네. Tell me about it. He’s got no nunchi.
2. To have quick nunchi (눈치가 빠르다)
The opposite of not having nunchi is having quick nunchi. You’d usually say that to someone if they are quick to pick up on something you tell them or if they say something intelligent. This may also be used in a sarcastic way if someone is pointing out the obvious.
Two people are sitting in a coffee shop they’ve visited many times before:
A: … 여기 와 본 적 있는 거 같기도 해. … It does seem like I’ve been here before.
B: 눈치 참 빠르네! (Sarcastically) You sure have quick nunchi!
3. To watch nunchi (눈치를 보다)
Watching nunchi is usually necessary when you are surrounded by many people at various gatherings like company dinners or meetings. Watching nunchi means being aware of your surroundings when you act in this setting so you don’t accidentally offend anyone. You watch nunchi when you pay attention to what you say and how you say it, when you observe the correct dinner etiquette, and when you find the opportune moment to leave without seeming rude.
A: 아 오늘도 회식이 있는데 매일 야근하느라 너무 피곤해. Ah, we have another company dinner tonight and I’m so tired from always working overtime.
B: 걱정 마, 눈치 봐서 일찍 들어가면 되지. Don’t worry, just watch nunchi and try to leave early.
4. To show nunchi (눈치가 보이다)
This is one I hear quite often from one of my Korean friends. 집에서 눈치 보인다. (It shows nunchi at home.) It took me a while to completely understand that this expression means that some kind of behavior does not look good to your parents. This is a common excuse when cutting short a dinner with friends because you have to be home at a certain time. “If I come home too late on a weekday it shows nunchi at home, so I’ll better leave now”. This expression is closely related to the expression 눈치밥을 먹다 (to eat nunchi rice), which is quite close to the English expression ‘to be treading on eggshells’ which means trying very hard not to upset anyone. In this case, you’re trying hard not to upset your parents by coming home too late.
From a very real conversation – note how skillfully Koreans avoid using the word ‘no’
A: 맥주 한잔 더 할래? Do you want another beer?
B: 일찍 집에 가야겠다. 늦게까지 놀면 집에서 눈치 보여 가지고… I have to go home early. If I’m out too late it shows nunchi at home, so…
5. To grasp nunchi (눈치를 채다)
This expression can be used when you find out something without being told about it. Like if you all of a sudden realize that your friend has a crush on someone.
A: 에이! 그냥 고백해 봐. Come on! Just tell them how you feel.
B: 헐! 어떻게 눈치 챈 거지? Whoa! How did you grasp nunchi?/How did you found out about it?
As you can see, nunchi is much like a sixth sense. A quite complex social concept deeply rooted in Korea’s Confucian culture. Confucian societies tend to value indirectness, politeness, and hierarchy, so a strong sense of nunchi is necessary for surviving in this culture. Hopefully, this blog post may serve as a guide for people struggling with understanding the meaning and importance of nunchi.
If you have any nunchi-related experiences, I’d love to hear about them in the comments.