Steve Pham

I love untranslatable words. I delight in learning new terms from other languages and cultures that perfectly describe the human experience in ways that simply don’t exist in English.

My first experience with an untranslatable word came from Korean, my mother tongue. The term was “noonchi” and, when wanting to use it in a conversation with a non-Korean friend, I came up blank for its English equivalent. It was such a basic, everyday concept to me that I was certain there had to be a word for it in English — I simply must not have encountered it before. I wound up describing the term to the continued puzzlement of my non-Korean friend, which is when I realized that it had to be a uniquely Korean concept.

Simply put, noonchi is the ability to read people, whether it’s through body language, facial expressions, mood, changes in tone, or even the circumstances of a situation. It’s the ability to read non-verbal, indirect cues in any given interpersonal interaction and then — and this is key — adjusting your behavior accordingly. It’s a sign of being respectful to another’s concerns or needs.

This quality is so important in Korean culture that someone displaying a lack of it will often elicit dismayed exclamations of “Aigoo! Noonchi opda!” which means, “Unbelievable, they have no noonchi!”

I bring up the concept of noonchi because it’s described in very good detail in a piece we’re sharing from sister publication JLC. Called “Jobsite Etiquette,” it’s a round table discussion with several top project managers on the soft skills they’ve developed in their years of working successfully with homeowners.

In the story, what I call noonchi is described as having an awareness that another person’s perspective will differ from your own and acknowledging that you’re operating on your customer’s turf.

“Maintaining that awareness takes practice, I think: Being aware and acting on that awareness, choosing to ask rather than assume, is key,” my colleague Clayton DeKorne (editor of JLC) says. Mike Whalen, one of the three project managers in the piece, says, “It’s hard to teach. It’s an awareness. And there is a whole range of personalities that force you to adapt how you communicate.”

It’s easy to see why such a quality would be important to cultivate in a business setting, whether it’s with customers or your own employees. It’s a way of being proactively responsive. Learning to anticipate and care for their concerns will go far in building mutual rapport, trust and loyalty.

And that is noonchi in a nutshell. It’s just one example of an untranslatable term that encompasses the complexities of human feeling and interaction in one succinct word. If you know of others, particularly ones that may be helpful in a business sense, please reach out — I’d love to hear them!