Understanding Noonchi (Nunchi) Culture for Teachers in Korea

Noonchi

by Yvette Murdoch and Cheryl (Farzana)Hyland

For many generations, Koreans have placed great emphasis on age and social status. This has arisen from the influence of Confucianism and the idea that older people have more power and authority. In Korea, one’s ability to listen and determine the mood or emotional state or desires of others as well as social expectations ensures harmony is preserved and conflicts are avoided.  This ability is known as noonchi or the “grasping [of] the situation in a holistic manner… to interpret and comprehend another’s thoughts, intentions, feelings, and desires, which are seldom verbally expressed” (Shim et al. 2008, 74).

Knowledge of both the positive and negative aspects of noonchi culture is one way of easing into the teaching and learning the environment of Korea. 

“Koreans certainly tend to give precedence to human factors over facts and logic because this tendency is one of the key factors which enables them to maintain social order and harmony” (Min 2016, 135).  Noonchi eopda (눈치 없다) is an expression often heard in Korea to refer to people who are considered clueless. That is, the individual either does not comprehend the situation or circumstance around them or that the person simply does not have any common sense.

The phrase can be heard spoken by Korean speakers of English as “A has no noonchi.”   On the other hand, noonchi itda (눈치 있다) is also heard, but not nearly as often as its negative counterpart. In this case, the person is considered to be quick at appraising the emotional tone of a situation or to have excellent common sense.

More often than not, for this positive case, one is likely to hear noonchi bbareuda (눈치 빠르다), which translated means ‘quick noonchi’.  

It is also just as important for international students to understand the concept if they wish to succeed at school because it is due to noonchi that Koreans almost never express their emotions openly or freely to others

It is important for teachers to know the concept to better understand their Korean students and other locals in the community. It is also just as important for international students to understand the concept if they wish to succeed at school because it is due to noonchi that Koreans almost never express their emotions openly or freely to others.  They are, however, constantly aware of others, especially how others might think or feel.

Where can you see negative influences of noonchi at school in Korea?

In Korea, students will quite often prepare 30 slides for a presentation of 10 minutes. Typically, 15-20 of them will actually be unnecessary and the slides will be packed with information, big words and wonderfully artistic diagrams and charts. Students will likely have spent 2-3 days and nights preparing the slides for their presentation. Koreans are very concerned with leaving the impression that they work hard, harder than others.

Younger students in the class have little or no power and will often remain quiet during discussions when grouped with older students. They will follow the opinions or ideas of older students rather than voice any objection or express their own voice. Teachers will need class management techniques that allow all students a chance to participate.

Korean students rarely ask their teachers direct questions or seek help from a person of authority.  Instead, they will likely ask people they are friendly with. Even during class, students can be seen sending text messages to fellow classmates, sometimes to the person sitting right next to them, concerning the class.

Students eating together nearly always fall victim to the food noonchi game. At the end of a meal

Students eating together nearly always fall victim to the food noonchi game. At the end of a meal, there will be one last item of food. Everyone will avoid taking that last bit of apple or that last dumpling and a long awkward period of silence occurs as social interaction comes to an abrupt halt. Everyone at the table watches the others to see who will break the silence by making the move to the last titbit of food. It is only after this occurs does the meal end.

Sadly, students considered to have little or no noonchi are frequently ostracised

Sadly, students considered to have little or no noonchi are frequently ostracised, which has brought about deep suffering and is one of the reasons, among OCED nations, that Korea ranks near the top in suicide rates. 

The 21st century has brought about much change in the Korean society, for instance, the younger generations no longer blindly follow people older than themselves, Confucianism has lost much of its strength, and social norms have changed. However, having noonchi, in terms of watching and listening attentively to others in order to assess mood and desires is still an important concept in Korea. In other words, despite growing individualism, “the traditional Confucian-based mentality and attitude toward interpersonal relationships still remain, therefore, being polite in Korea requires being other-oriented” (Min 2016, 130).

References

[영어, 뭐든지 알려주마] ‘눈치 없다’라는 말을 영어로는 어떻게 표현하나요? [Digital image]. The Korea Economic Daily (2006, September 4). Retrieved from http://sgsg.hankyung.com/apps.frm/news.view?nkey=2221&c1=99&c2=41

Gelo Story [Digital image]. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.gelostory.com/page-01/#01

Min, W. (2016). Implicit Notions of Identity: The Absence Of Explicit Communication In Korean Hybrid Greetings. Universum (Talca), 31(2), 119-140. doi:10.4067/s0718-23762016000200008.

Shim, T. Y., Kim, M., and Martin, J. N. (2008). Changing Korea: Understanding culture and communication. New York (N.Y.): Lang.

Author Bio:

Cheryl (Farzana) Hyland, retired linguistics professor from the Department of General English at Sookmyung Women’s University in Seoul, Korea, also taught EFL/ESL in the United States and the UAE.  She is still actively involved in the international EFL/ESL community with a focus on promoting student comfort, motivation, and achievement in the EFL classroom.