Nunchi is the new Hygge – and it could just change your life

It’s the Korean art of strate­gic em­pa­thy that prom­ises to make ev­ery­one your ally. But can Robyn Wilder mas­ter it?

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i never quite got hygge. (Is it a woolly jumper? That bit of Christ­mas Day be­fore ev­ery­one starts ar­gu­ing? Both?) Or, now I come to think about it, the Kon­mari method ei­ther. I can­not think of any­thing more te­dious than origami-ing my pants into pas­tel-coloured shoe boxes every laun­dry day from here to eter­nity.

But nunchi? When I open The Power Of Nunchi: The Korean Se­cret To Hap­pi­ness And Suc­cess, by Korean-amer­i­can writer Euny Hong, I feel quite op­ti­mistic.

Nunchi, I learn, is the ancient art of gaug­ing peo­ple’s shift­ing moods, mo­ti­va­tions and al­le­giances, then us­ing em­pa­thy and diplo­macy to build trust, and ul­ti­mately achieve your goal – whether that’s mak­ing guests feel wel­come at your party, or fast-track­ing your career. It’s a sort of weaponised po­lite­ness – and I am po­lite to a fault. I’m em­pa­thetic and kind; a reg­u­lar win­ner of hearts and minds. I may ac­tu­ally have a nat­u­ral tal­ent for nunchi. Fi­nally, a well­ness con­cept I can get be­hind!

When I say this to my hus­band – who has lived and worked in Korea – he makes a noise that sounds like a stran­gled badger. ‘Your nunchi’s not bad,’ he says. ‘You’re em­pa­thetic when you’re not think­ing about it, but when you’re un­com­fort­able, you tend to put your foot in it.’

Now that I think about it, he’s right. Some­times I have the sparkling diplo­macy of a Fer­rero Rocher am­bas­sador, but as soon as my so­cial anx­i­ety kicks in, I lose it. I tell in­ap­pro­pri­ate jokes, I of­fend the per­son I’m try­ing to be­friend. So, I waste no time in get­ting in touch with Euny Hong for a nunchi makeover. She guides me through a cou­ple of up­com­ing en­gage­ments, for which I must be armed with max­i­mum nunchi.

First, I’m throw­ing a small hen party for a friend, but there’s a prob­lem. Three of the women on the guest list have fallen out rather dra­mat­i­cally with one an­other – two of them with me. At­tempts to re­solve the is­sues have only ratch­eted up the ten­sion, so I need to know, is it bad nunchi if I hide in the toi­let for the en­tire thing?

‘My own nunchi tells me that you are prob­a­bly spend­ing a dis­pro­por­tion­ate amount of psy­chic en­ergy stress­ing about the two peo­ple with whom you have the most prob­lems,’ Euny tells me. ‘Stop that. As soon as you en­ter a room, you should think of it as a whole. At the thresh­old, say hello but be silent for a few sec­onds, tak­ing a snapshot of the room. Who is stand­ing near whom? Who looks con­spir­a­to­rial? You don’t have to have a plan of ac­tion at this stage; nunchi is more about flip­ping on an aware­ness switch.

She con­tin­ues: ‘You can con­trib­ute pos­i­tively to the room with­out being talk­a­tive. Just pay at­ten­tion to what peo­ple are think­ing and feel­ing, and the right words and ac­tions will come to you nat­u­rally. Be aware, though, that some peo­ple will never see eye-to-eye. Just ac­cept this. Nunchi, like en­ergy, time and money, is in fi­nite sup­ply – save it for when you can ac­tu­ally make a dif­fer­ence.’

When the evening ar­rives, with Euny’s ad­vice in mind, I do my best to ob­serve the room. Pre­dictably, the war­ring friends stick to op­po­site ends. As the host, it’s up to me to keep ev­ery­one fed and wa­tered, so I cir­cu­late, smil­ing at ev­ery­one. And I do feel the ten­sion drop slightly with every canapé I hand out.

Then, when I see one of my neme­ses fid­dling with her neck­lace, I no­tice it as a sign of ner­vous­ness. I de­ploy a strate­gic com­pli­ment on her choice of ac­ces­sory and she soft­ens vis­i­bly to­wards me – but that’s as far as my courage will stretch today, so I scut­tle away for the rest of the party, giv­ing my­self a mod­er­ate nunchi score.

Next, I’m meet­ing an ed­i­tor to try and secure some work in her magazine. I’m not quite sure how to play it and I’m wor­ried be­cause I’ve seen ed­i­tors in pre­vi­ous meet­ings sti­fling po­lite yawns. Nat­u­rally, Euny has some wis­dom to share. ‘When you en­ter the room, take in the en­vi­ron­ment. Is the re­cep­tion­ist im­pe­ri­ous? Does ev­ery­one seem scared of the per­son you’re meet­ing? You don’t have to take spe­cific ac­tion: you are sim­ply turn­ing on your nunchi switch.

‘Then, when they talk, lis­ten. Peo­ple can in­stinc­tively tell whether you’re re­ally lis­ten­ing to them. Fo­cus on that, not so much on your­self or on your own words. If you do sense your au­di­ence is fad­ing, it’s OK to say, “My in­tu­ition is telling me you’re not in love with this idea; do you think it can be im­proved upon?” By do­ing this, you’re demon­strat­ing that you are pay­ing at­ten­tion to them, and if they tell you why they don’t like the idea, you’ve gained pre­cious in­for­ma­tion that can help later on.’

I am start­ing to be­lieve Euny Hong is a witch, be­cause pre­cisely what she pre­dicts comes to pass. First, I note how ev­ery­one de­fers to the ed­i­tor. Sec­ond, she doesn’t like my ideas! Largely be­cause they’re less ideas and more an anx­ious col­lec­tion of loosely con­nected ob­ser­va­tions.

How­ever, when I take Euny’s ad­vice – quelling my anx­ious urge to fill the si­lence, to re­ally lis­ten to the other woman’s feed­back – fur­ther dis­cus­sion shows she does like the ob­ser­va­tions them­selves, just as stand­alone top­ics. She ends up com­mis­sion­ing me on the spot for a se­ries of fea­tures.

Nunchi, Euny tells me, is not an ex­act sci­ence. Sit­u­a­tions in life aren’t al­ways clear-cut, and we may not al­ways have the right in­for­ma­tion. A ‘nunchi-ninja’ will un­der­stand that ev­ery­thing is con­stantly in flux. But, she tells me, usu­ally we can trust our gut. And, most im­por­tantly, we can lis­ten and ob­serve.

‘Al­ways re­mem­ber,’ Euny con­cludes, ‘that the over­all goal of nunchi is to create a har­mo­nious en­vi­ron­ment. I think Maya An­gelou summed it up best when she said, “Peo­ple will for­get what you said, peo­ple will for­get what you did, but peo­ple will never for­get how you made them feel.” That is very nunchi­ful ad­vice.’

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