Assessing Another's Feelings or State of Mind

Closely tied to gibun is another Korean concept-nunchi, which literally means 'eye measure'. It is the ability to assess another person's gibun, but it is done not only by the eye.

In a society where behaving so as not to disturb social harmony is critical, being able to judge another person's state of mind is essential. Good nunchi ability puts a person one step ahead of everyone else. He will know when to ask his boss for favor, when to take or yield the right of way in traffic, and when to tell bad news and cause the least damage.

Nunchi is a kind of antenna one has to sense another's feelings or state of mind. Some of this is done by watching body language, and heeding the tone of voice and what is said. In Korea, where gibun is so important, many people have developed a kind of sixth sense with which to assess it.

Of course, this kind of judgment takes place everywhere in the world, as when a child learns the best time and person to ask for an ice cream or treat. But whereas Westerners are more likely to state their moods, or at least reveal their states of mind, Koreans have been taught to control their emotions, and to disguise their true feelings. To discern the mood of a Korean requires much nunchi.

Some Koreans complain about the indirectness with which they are required to express their feelings. They would sometimes prefer to say exactly how they feel, and often wish others would do the same, thus negating the need for such a sensitive nunchi. But tradition dies hard in this Confucian-oriented society.

Remember, too, that behaviors are interpreted using different measures in Korean and Western societies. Thus, an angry outburst may be taken as an expression of greater dissatisfaction in Korea than in a Western country. If you receive a phone call bearing bad news, and appear sad after it, your Korean friend will probably treat you with extra care and sensitivity, afraid to upset you further. If you complain to your subordinate that she is behind on a project, she may misinterpret this to mean that you are generally dissatisfied with her work.