This article by Dr. Luke Kim is part of a series designed to teach families about Korean culture. For a listing of all the articles in the series, click here.
In Western culture, verbal communication is very important. It is emphasized that verbal communication be clear and explicit. However, in Asian culture, verbal communication is less clear, more subtle, indirect, and often non-verbal. Westerns who live in Korea often complain that Koreans are not communicative. A Korean may respond: "We, Koreans, carry on conversations without talking. We can tell how you are thinking and feeling, without explaining to me." Korea has been even called a "noonchi culture."
The Korean word Noonchi means literally "measuring with eyes." It is an intuitive, sixth-sense perception of another person -- a capacity to size up and evaluate another person or situation quickly and intuitively. With noonchi one develops heightened awareness of, and sensitivity to, another person's gestures, facial expressions, voice, the way of talking, body language, and other non- verbal cues.
In Asian countries, "honorific" language system is highly developed. Depending on whom you are talking to, one uses different word and sentence structure. There are several words meaning "you," and which "you" one uses defines the relationship between the addresser and addressee. It is somewhat similar to the German language which also has three different words of "you," and the speaker select which word to use according to the level of intimacy or formality that is appropriate. There are also ways of "talking up" or "talking down" to the person.
Having an acute sense of noonchi is necessary and desirable in a hierarchical society where the emphasis is on observing the proper protocol and manners in inter-personal interactions. The intuitive ability of noonchi helps one discern where one stands in relation to a person or situation, since it is important to accord appropriate respect through the use of appropriate language and manner. In order to live in peace and harmony with people in crowded housing in a congested city, one needs to scrutinize others and accommodate their needs and feelings as much as possible. Hence, to describe a person as being without noonchi is a derogatory remark. It implies that the person is insensitive, uncouth, unmannered, and uncultured. In another word, he is a jerk.
On the other hand, excessive noonchi may be a sign of insecurity, hypersensitivity, and possible anxiety. If carried to an extreme, clinical manifestations of social phobia and paranoia may occur. A culture-related subtype of social phobia, called "Taein-Kongpo (TK)" in Korean, and "Taijin-kyofu" in Japanese, has been of great interest among Asian psychiatrists. Examples of TK symptoms include: fear of blushing, fear of one's hands shaking when in writing in front of someone, fear of bad breath or body odor offending someone, fear of gazing (i.e. fear that one's gaze might be seen as too sharp, fierce andthreatening to others,) fear of being embarrassed andhumiliated with a physical defect, etc. TK is considered to be related to excessive cultural emphasis on noonchi.
Luke Kim, M.D., Ph.D. is a clinical professor of psychiatry at University of California School of Medicine. He is a board member of Friends of Korea organization in Sacramento, California, and a friend and supporter of Korean Quarterly newspaper.
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