Social Harmony in Korea

by Celia Patterson FCLC ‘21

안녕하세요! Hello from Korea! My name is Celia, and I am currently studying abroad in Seoul. This is my first time visiting Korea and my first time in Asia! My experience in Seoul has been great and I feel so lucky to be here. Recently, I have been discussing with my family back home the Korean concepts of nunchi and kibun and the role they play in our lives. 

Nunchi (pronounced noon-chee and written as 눈치 in Korean) literally translates to eye measure. Euny Long, the author of the New York Times article that brought the term to my family’s attention, defines it more clearly as “The subtle art of gauging other people’s thoughts and feelings in order to build trust, harmony and connection.” I have learned that nunchi is an important part of Korean life and in learning about it, I have found that I wish it was just as important in the U.S. Nunchi places value on emotional intelligence and the rare ability to understand others’ emotional experiences and needs. You do not have good nunchi, but quick nunchi, if you are able to rapidly and accurately read an entire room of people to assess the atmosphere. 

Another Korean word related to societal peace and balance is kibun (pronounced kee-boon and written as 기분 in Korean). Kibun literally translated means “mood,” but the word contains much more meaning than that. Linguist Arika Okrent explains that kibun is “…your state of mind with respect to your place in the world.” Social harmony and positive vibes are important in understanding kibun. The word teaches us to respect others’ kibuns and to act accordingly. If a person is in a bad mood, we should try not to make that mood worse through our own actions. With the concept of kibun, we can help both others and ourselves to preserve good moods and improve bad ones. 

I hope that you find these two terms as interesting as my family and I did and that you try to implement them in your own life. I know that this knowledge will be one of the best things that I bring home from Korea. If we all try to cultivate quick nunchi and a firm understanding of kibun, then I hope that we can achieve greater social harmony and personal happiness, making both ours and others’ lives better.