Nunchi (when empathy is not enough)

There was an amazing recent article in the NY Times about the Korean concept of “nunchi”. I’ve been thinking deeply about this article.

Nunchi is, to a first approximation, “the subtle art and ability to listen and gauge others’ moods.” A person with “quick nunchi” can accurately read the mood of an entire room full of people.

It’s not a concept that is easy for many Westerners. This is largely because it requires the ability to actually shut up and listen.

The article in the NY Times discusses the difference between nunchi and empathy. You can be very empathetic, yet still misunderstand what is going on around you.

In contrast, a person with quick nunchi is able to correctly perceive whether empathy is even appropriate. This distinction is particularly useful when dealing with people who have narcissistic or sociopathic tendencies.

I’ve been thinking back on my own interpersonal interactions, and realizing that I would be well served by developing my own nunchi. Unfortunately, sometimes empathy is not enough.

One Response to “Nunchi (when empathy is not enough)”

  1. Tongxin Xu says:

    I just want to mention that there are similar expressions in other east asian culture as well.
    In Chinese we have 察言观色(cha yan guan se) meaning observe other people’s thought and mood.
    In Japanese there’s a expression called 空気を読む(Kūki o yomu) which literally means read the air.

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