Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Also for reading the atmosphere of a too quiet classroom in Korea . . .

Have some nunchi?
Illustration by Rose Wong

In "Looking Another Culture in the Eye" (NYT, September 13, 2014), Erin Meyer tells of a recent educational experience she had in Tokyo:
While traveling in Tokyo recently with a Japanese colleague, I gave a short talk to a group of 20 managers. At the end, I asked whether there were any questions or comments. No hands went up, so I went to sit down. My colleague whispered to me: "I think there actually were some comments, Erin. Do you mind if I try?" He asked the group again: "Any comments or questions?"

Still, no one raised a hand, but this time he looked very carefully at each person in the silent audience. Gesturing to one of them, he said, "Do you have something to add?" To my amazement, she responded, "Yes, thank you," and asked me a very interesting question. My colleague repeated this several times, looking directly at the audience members and asking for more questions or comments.

After the session, I asked my colleague: "How did you know that those people had questions?" He hesitated, not sure how to explain it, and then said, "It has to do with how bright their eyes are."

He continued: "In Japan, we don't make as much direct eye contact as you do in the West. So when you asked if there were any comments, most people were not looking directly at you. But a few people in the group were looking right at you, and their eyes were bright. That indicates that they would be happy to have you call on them."
Ms. Meyer goes on to note that an absence of this ability to spot what people want has a name:
In Japan, there is an expression popular with young people: "kuuki yomenai." Often shortened to "K.Y.," it refers to someone who is unable to read the atmosphere.
This inability is the opposite of what the Koreans call nunchi (눈치, pronounced "noonchi"), an ability to read the atmosphere of a situation. But Koreans also have an expression for the inability to read atmosphere: nunchi eoptta (눈치 없다), meaning "nunchi is lacking."

The next time I inquire whether my Korean students have any questions, I'll remember to look for the shining eyes . . .

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