When striking up any kind of social relationship with Koreans, you should be aware of the concept of kibun (say it like ‘key-bun’). Most commonly translated as pride, morale, ‘face’, mood, vibe, or feelings, this is a tricky cultural concept that isn’t found in the UK.

Harmony in relationships (both business and social) is the main goal and driver behind kibun. If a reasonable request is made of you (for example, by a boss or a friend) you have a duty to fulfil it, or risk damaging their kibun as well as your own. Everyone who is close to you should feel respected, safe and comfortable; even if a white lie needs to be told to them, to ensure their feelings aren’t hurt.

Koreans believe that damaged kibun can affect their mental and physical health; so at times, instead of directly saying a truth that may hurt the pride of the other person, they let it go, with a stronger wish to protect the person’s kibun.

The ability to read other people’s kibun is known as nunchi; or ‘eye measure’. It’s a skill that involves picking up on cues such as body language and tone of voice, to understand what is truly being communicated or felt. Those who share similar status, knowledge and relationships, like a group of high school friends for example, can understand and protect each each others kibun easily.

While it’s an unfamiliar concept for many outside of Korea, last year, kibun was referenced in US TV show Orange is the New Black, leading to this interesting article by The World in Words.


About Author

British writer and editor living in Japan. Currently studying Japanese, Korean, K-pop dance, and the fine form of 이성종's legs.