Korean “Noonchi” and Its Chinese Equivalent Explained (in My Way)

People with some understanding of Korean culture, from foreigners living in Korea like me to businessmen ever dealing with partners in Korea, probably have heard about “noonchi” (눈치). If you haven’t, it is one thing better than “kimchi” you should know to impress a Korean friend. It is usually explained as the art of gauging the situation and acting accordingly mostly from observing the people around. (Urban Dictionary says it can also be the first name of a child. That’s either a joke or abhorrently irresponsible parents!)

There are many different Korean expressions with “noonchi” in them, where sometimes “noonchi” seems to mean the ability to read people or situations and make quick good judgement as in “to have noonchi” (눈치 있다), while other times it seems to mean the silent pressure on people so they act a certain way, as in “to give noonchi” (눈치 준다). So what on earth is “noonchi”?

After some research, I came across this explanation that originally 눈치 was written as 눈츼, which means something like “looking to one’s side without turning his or her head”. In real usage of the noonchi expressions, eye movements are not necessarily implied. But I found it very interesting. With this more tangible “side-look” image linked to noonchi, the above mentioned confusing phrases now make a lot more sense (to me). If nothing else, I think it is still a great mnemonic exercise. For example:

To have/not have the side look (noonchi) (눈치 있다/없다)

Imagine somebody can quickly look at and have a good grasp of what’s going on in their surroundings without even turning his or her head, that is some sort of emotional intelligence! Thus it naturally translates to having quick wits and ability to read situations and people’s intention.

To give / get the side look (noonchi) (눈치 준다/ 눈치 채다)

Imagine your best friend asking your new boyfriend whether you guys want kids and warning you of the ticking clock when they meet for the very first time. Feeling awkward, you look (if not stare) at her from the corner of your eye, hoping she would see you giving her the side look, get the hint and change the topic. Here you are trying to silently give somebody a hint or signal, sometimes even pressure, to make him or her act a certain way. By the way, my friend apparently didn’t get the noonchi. But in retrospect, I am glad she didn’t. At least I knew right away that this was not a guy who would be easily scared away.

To look at somebody’s side look (noonchi) (눈치 본다)

Well, imagine every time you try to call it a day and leave the office at 6PM, your boss gives you noonchi by watching you from her seat without directly turning her head to you. If you are a person with noonchi and you know she is not happy about it, next time before you leave, you will stand up from your seat and secretly look around to see whether she is looking. If she is, you pretend you have just stood up to stretch and sit back down. You could be looking at one person’s side looks, or many people’s side looks, because you feel pressure which usually makes you more hesitant or cautious in doing something. Disclaimer: this is a very stereotypical Korean workplace setting. The company, especially the team, I’m working in has nothing like that. (nervously looking… just kidding. :P)

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