Sooner or later, you’re going to hear the phrase nunchi (눈치) in Korean. It’s a very good example of an untranslatable word from Korean.
However, just because it’s untranslatable, it doesn’t mean it can’t be explained or that it doesn’t have equivalents in non-Korean society. The same concepts exist in English (and other languages), but it’s expressed differently.
Euny Hong described nunchi in The Power of Nunchi: The Korean Secret to Happiness and Success as “the art of understanding what people are thinking and feeling”.
Wikipedia describes nunchi as emotional intelligence, which is a little helpful to understand it. But in English, we’d rarely point out someone’s lack of EQ.
By way of example, you can describe nunchi as
- An ability to “read the room”, avoiding saying or doing something awkward
- Knowing and behaving according to social norms in a specific situation
- An ability to “take a hint” that someone is giving you
In other words, to have nunchi is the opposite of being someone who is socially awkward. It’s just that in Korean you state the positive — that someone has (or lacks) nunchi — whereas in English you point out the negative, that someone may be behaving socially awkwardly.
Hanja origins (Chinese characters) of nunchi
The Korean word 눈치 comes from the Chinese characters 眼勢 (the traditional character for 力). These literally mean “eye” and “force”. You might also notice that 눈 means “eye” in Korean. (It also means “snow”, I know. There are a lot of homonyms in Korean!)
However, in modern Chinese, the commonly used equivalent of 눈치 is 眼色, which means “eye colour” (you might notice the first character is common).
Situations in which someone will mention “Nunchi” in Korean
It’s worth pointing out that there are a number of different situations in which someone will point out that someone has (or lacks) nunchi.
Here are a few of the classic situations.
- Someone failing to take a hint. It’s your girlfriend/boyfriend’s birthday soon and they say “Hey, guess what’s coming up?” and you can’t think what it is and blurt something else out. Classic (if a bit cliché) lack of nunchi.
- Someone doing something abnormal, oblivious to their surroundings. For example, someone lounging against the wrong side of an escalator, oblivious that everyone has to pass them on the other side.
Nunchi common examples in everyday Korean
I came across nunchi in the first dialogue in the “Iyagi” conversation course on Talk To Me in Korean. The phrase used was 눈치가 보여요. The Google Translate translation for this was “I can see you”. But I could tell this was wrong!
The longer context for the conversation was this passage:
|노약자석에 자주 앉아 봤어요?||Do you often sit in the seats for the elderly/disabled?|
|네, 버스는 자주 앉아 봤는데 지하철에서는 못 앉겠더라고요.||Yes, I often do in the bus, but in the subway I couldn’t.|
|아… 너무 눈치가 보여요.||Jin Seok-jin: Ah… I felt uncomfortable.|
In this passage, nunchi means “I have situational awareness that it’s not the right thing”. Like a more subtle way of saying “I’m not a jerk”.
Let’s start by looking at the root forms for a few Korean conversational phrases involving nunchi.
Here are a few common ways to say nunchi in everyday Korean conversation. Below, I’ll show some examples of how they’re used.
|1. 눈치(가) 있다||To have nunchi|
|2. 눈치(가) 없다||To lack nunchi|
|3. 눈치(가) 빠르다||To be quick witted (or to have quick nunchi)|
|4. 눈치(가) 보이다||To feel unfomfortable|
|5. 눈치(가) 보다||To observe someone’s thought or emotion.|
|6. 눈치(가) 채다||To sense, to become aware of, to notice.|
Some of those phrases you can use stand-alone. But you can modify all of them to change the tone — and people often do.
The below are some of the expressions involving nunchi that I’ve heard or seen people say.
|Korean root form||Expression||Phrase|
|1. 눈치 있다||그는 눈치 있다 (base form)||“He/she has (or you have) nunchi“. This is a gentle compliment for someone who you want to say is sensitive to social situations.|
|2. 눈치 없다||그는 눈치 없다||“He/she lacks (or you lack) nunchi“. As above, you can use this in root form to chastise someone lightly.|
|2. 눈치 없다||눈치 없어!||He/she has no clue!|
|눈치가 없네.||He/she can’t take a hint.|
|눈치 없는 사람||A “clueless person”. You use this to describe someone else.|
|3. 눈치 빠르다||그는 눈치가 빠르다||Use it in the base form compliment someone who reacts quickly to a social situation. “그는 눈치가 빠르다” means “he can take a hint [because he’s quick-witted]”.|
|“눈치가 진짜 빨라!”||“He catches on quick!”|
|4. 눈치 보이다||눈치가 보여요||“I feel uncomfortable”. You can use it to justify something, e.g. if you want to stay somewhere, but the situation feels weird and you suspect you’re not entirely welcome.|
|5. 눈치 보다||눈치 많이 보는 사람||An observant person.|
|6. 눈치 채다||눈치 챘더군요!||“They noticed!” or “They could tell!”, in response to you doing or saying something cheeky.|
|눈치 챘어야 했는데||“I should have known”|
|눈치 좀 채라!||“Read the room/take a hint!”|
|눈치 못 챘어!||“I can’t read minds!”|
So far those are the most common ones I’ve seen.
I’m on the lookout for more.
Korean nunchi in other cultures
It might help people who speak other languages or who are familiar with other cultures to think of equivalents of nunchi.
In Japanese, there’s ba no kuuki wo yomu (場の空気を読む). Literally to “read the air”, it’s described as being able to “sensing someone’s feelings” or to “understand a situation without words”. Being able to intuit situations and feelings is important in Japanese culture.
In Chinese (Mandarin), there’s the equivalent expression of yan se (眼色). Literally, this means “eye colour”, but it’s understood as meaning the same as nunchi — an ability to read the room. To describe someone as being able to read the room, you say the “have eye colour” (有眼色). Conversely, if they lack it, you can say they “lack eye colour” (没眼色).