Nunch’i is such an essential element of Korean culture that I hesitate to tackle it–and have no choice but to do so.
Nunch’i is also hard to define. There’s certainly no translation that’s both direct and concise; the best I’ve heard might be tact, but that’s only part of it.
So, what is nunch’i? Nunch’i, broadly, is social grace, the social grease that keeps an interaction running smoothly.
To me, nunch’i is understanding how to behave in different situations and toward different people based on your relationships and relative positions–reading the situation and knowing the role to play at any given time. It ranges from things covered by the word tact in English–not asking how much money someone makes, remembering not to ask about an acquaintance’s recent ex–to more subtle behaviors.
This second group begins to blend into another concept, kaenyŏm (개념, a later post), and encompasses things like knowing when to end a conversation and who should do so first, or what type and grade of gift to give your friend, your boss, your teacher. It’s noticing when a dinner companion’s glass is empty, but also knowing if it’s you or someone else who should fill it, and when and how to do so smoothly. Given the particularities of the Korean language, it includes which verb endings and pronouns to use with whom.
Nunch’i is also knowing your place: Ideally, if everybody in a situation has good nunch’i, no one will feel too awkward or bad because everyone will know just how to behave towards everyone else.
Unfortunately, the situation is rare indeed in which everyone has good nunch’i. There’s even a slang word for people whose nunch’i doesn’t measure up: nunsae (눈새), a contraction of nunch’i-saekki (눈치새끼)–saekki literally means baby or cub, but unless it’s a grandmother saying it to a little kid, it’s probably being used in its rude sense, meaning, more or less, son of a ___. When these people leave the room, you and your friends mutter to each other about how they don’t have any nunch’i, why’d they have to go and say that?
I’ll write more about nunsae in a future post, but here’s an example from wikinamu that obviously falls under the general understanding of tactlessness in English:
Speaker: “Ahh, I’m gonna die because of tuition… Really, how am I gonna handle these school loans?… It’s so hard :(“
Nun-sae: “My mom and dad paid for me, haha. I love you mom and dad!”
Even with the whole English and Korean Internet at my fingertips, details about the origins of nunch’i remained elusive. According to Naver dictionary, it appeared in Yŏkhae Yuhae (역해유해), a book of translated words, in 1690, so I guessed it’d been around a while, but that wasn’t enough for me.
Luckily, I have connections, so I asked a former colleague and Korean language and literature doctoral student what he knew. (Thanks CHJ!) He pointed me to a resource I hadn’t heard about: the Korean Word History (국어 어휘 역사) section of the National Institute of the Korean Language (국립국어원). Here’s what they say about nunch’i‘s origins, along with a rough translation:
‘눈치’는 17세기 처음 ‘눈츼(眼勢)’로 나타난다. ‘눈츼>눈치’의 변화를 겪어 현대어 ‘눈치’에 이르렀다. 위의 18,19세기에 검색된 예에서도 알 수 있듯이, ‘눈치’와 관련된 관용 표현이 많이 사용되고 있다. … ‘눈치’에 결합한 ‘치’는 고어에 ‘츼’로 나타나지만 그 기원은 분명치 한다 [sic]. 사람의 신체어에 ‘치’가 붙은 경우는 드물다. ‘손치’, ‘발치’ 등과 같은 단어는 없다.
Nunch’i first appeared in the 17th century as nunch’ŭi (眼勢 in Chinese characters, meaning eye force/power). Nunch’ŭi underwent a transformation into the modern word nunch’i. As you can see from the examples retrieved above from the 18th and 19th centuries, nunch’i and related common expressions were used a lot. … The ch’i in nunch’i came from the earlier form ch’ŭi, but the origin of that is unclear.* It’s uncommon for ch’i to be attached to a word for a person’s body part. There’s no sonch’i (hand + power), palch’i, or other such word.
* There’s a typo in the Korean here.
So essentially, this is a Sino-Korean word–that is, a word borrowed from Chinese into Korean sometime during the 2,000+ years since this practice began (see Sohn 2006). And, we don’t know much about how the word came to be, only that it probably meant something similar to what it means today by at least the 18th and 19th centuries.
I’ve talked a lot about nunch’i‘s role in society already, so instead, let’s talk about a specific cultural practice.
Nunch’i is the basis for a popular drinking game, the Nunch’i Game (눈치 게임), which, appropriately, requires reading the intentions of those around you and making a move accordingly. The game usually starts off with a chant–I’ve heard a few versions, but the simplest is just repeating Nunch’i Game three times in chorus. Then people start to shout numbers, counting from one up to the total number of people playing. The catch is, if two people say a number at the same time, they have to drink. On the other hand, if you’re the last one left–too timid to say a number at all–you’re the one who has to drink. (I played a version of this game in adult conversation classes with timid speakers where, instead of drinking, the losers had to answer a question in English.)
Here’s a clip of the guys from Running Man, a popular TV comedy show, playing the game repeatedly:
Or, here’s a version in English where an American guy in Daegu sees if people will join in a flash nunch’i game on the subway (which ironically would demonstrate a serious lack of nunch’i if he weren’t doing it for the humor and subversion factors):
There is so much more I could say about nunch’i, culturally, critically and otherwise, but saying it all would take a whole book, so that’s it for now!
Revised romanization: nun-chi / nunchi
McCune–Reischauer: nun-ch’i / nunch’i
Sohn, Ho-min. 2006. “Korean in Contact with Chinese.” Korean Language in Culture and Society. ed. Ho-min Sohn. pp. 44-56.
“눈치.” 국어 어휘 역사. n.d. 국립국어원. 30 March 2016.