In the mid-90s, when South Korean companies started capturing global markets from Uzbekistan to England to Vietnam, they often encountered a unique cultural issue.
The expatriate Korean managers in the foreign land were often misunderstood by the local subordinates due to their rigid attitude. On the face of it, they appeared to distrust non-Koreans, apart from being hard taskmasters. It was also perceived that they barely listened to their local subordinates. As a consequence, Korean companies in offshore lands often faced talent-retention problems.
Not to blame the Korean managers, the problem was linked to the hierarchical society back home, where people valued seniority. They were used to taking orders from their superiors blindly, and would rarely challenge their leaders. It was owed to gruelling military training that virtually all South Korean men undergo.
The expatriate Korean managers tried to implement the same in the offshore lands. However, not all subordinates were the same – there were educated white-collared workforces in Germany and Netherlands, while there were low-wage workers in South East Asia. For instance, Dutch employees in a Korean subsidiary in Netherlands stated that their Korean superiors failed to understand the nuances of Dutch culture, while the Korean managers failed to understand why Dutch employees would call in sick because they had a cold whereas Korean employees would come to work until they were truly unable to do so. In South East Asia, Korean managers were even embroiled in beatings and brawls with low-wage workers.
In Korean culture, if a boss asks ‘Are you hungry?’, he/she actually means ‘I am hungry, can we eat now?’ So, a ‘No’ in response would hurt his/her kibun, which means sentiment, morale, affection or mood. Now, such nuances were hard to understand for a subordinate from a different culture.
The problems kept escalating and then the Korean companies realised that they needed to work on the cultural skills of the expatriate managers. That is when many Korean companies introduced the concept of ‘nunchi’ for Korean managers working offshore. The idea was to teach the Korean managers to ‘listen’ more.
Nunchi is a 17th century concept, which is the subtle art of listening and the ability to gauge others’ moods. The Japanese believe that a good listener hears one and understands 10. Nunchi is all about developing skills to become a better listener, as it provides the ability to assess a situation, read between the lines, and hear between the sounds. Nunchi is the ability to determine another person’s kibun by using the eye. It is like a sixth sense, which reads non-verbal and body languages, as well as the tones to get the real meaning of what they say.
In other words, Nunchi is the tact to grasp social situations and read a given interaction, besides also learn how to respond to it. In short, it’s the act of grasping what other people are thinking and learning how to anticipate their needs.
Korean companies believe that nunchi enables Korean managers to uphold control in faraway lands. Korean managers are expected to look after employees’ needs, with the expectation that in return, the employees will show a high interest in their workplace. The companies have, therefore, laid down informal nunchi-grounded checks and balances.
It is also a manager’s role to motivate and inspire others, to foster positive attitudes at work and generate a sense of contribution and importance with and among employees. All this can be achieved by practising nunchi. In Korean culture, a socially clumsy person is described as nunchi eoptta which means ‘absence of nunchi.’
In today’s context, nunchi is comparable to a heightened form of emotional intelligence (EI), and to be an effective manager, one needs to possess emotional intelligence.
Emotional intelligence is closely related to the broader concept of paralanguage. However, nunchi also relies on the understanding of one’s status relative to the person with whom one is interacting. It can be perceived as the embodiment of skills necessary to communicate effectively in high-context culture.