Seth Robertson is a PhD student in Philosophy at the University of Oklahoma focusing on moral psychology.
Nunchi (눈치, pronounced “noon-tchee”), a Korean word meaning literally “eye-measure,” isn’t widely considered a virtue, but it should be. Nunchi is the ability both to accurately read others’ mental states by the subtlest of cues and to use this information to expertly steer social situations. The person who notices the tiniest twinge of discomfort on a colleague’s face when a new topic is broached, and then deftly steers the conversation away from that topic has lots of nunchi; the person who always puts his foot in his mouth lacks it. Nunchi is both perceptive and performative. It is not quite social or emotional intelligence and not quite tact, but it includes them.
Two distinctive (and mutually-supporting) features of the Confucian ethical project are deep moral concern about what we might think of as microethical situations, and a heavy focus on highly ritualized behavior both as the foundation for moral growth and the stage for moral behavior. We can see how this all comes together, I believe, in passage 11.26 of the Analects: Confucius asks several of his students how they would respond if they finally came to be respected (perhaps as government ministers). Three of his students respond as they think Confucius wants them to: by bragging about how they would institute the policies and behave in the ways that Confucius frequently advocates. The fourth student, Zeng Xi, t answers differently. He would, he says, go swim in the river on a warm spring day with folks from his village, sing on the walk back home, and maybe stop by an altar – not to perform a ritual ceremony, but to “enjoy the breeze.” Confucius, somewhat surprisingly, sides with Zeng Xi. This passage, I believe, is central to the picture of Confucian well-being. The Confucian focus on the ethics of ritualized behaviors, on moral development in general and the moral training of leaders, on the microethical as the ethical, are all oriented towards promoting the type of social stability, material security, and harmony that allows us to flourish not as people who have all developed our particularly human excellences but as people who are part of a happy community with access to the (philosophically) underappreciated goods in life like a carefree spring day with friends young and old.
Nunchi is a required virtue for this Confucian picture of well-being. It allows us to read the information communicated in the subtlest changes in the micro-ethical and especially highly ritually-restrained behavior of others, and to successfully communicate back, and thus contribute in our own small but significant ways to that most vital project of co-building the type of society in which everyone has access to the goods of a human community.