Nunchiga eopda (눈치가 없다)* and Dab-jeong-neo (답정너 )**

*:someone who is clueless and can’t read the room/situation.

**an adjective describing a situation where you ask someone a question, wanting to hear a specific answer. The classic example:”Do I look fat?”

I have sympathy for the nunchiga eopdas of this world. Take the former attorney in the “prestigious” unit of my legal services office, our Special Litigation Unit (oft reserved for graduates of the Ivy League law schools) whom I barely knew but seemed in all the interactions I had to beautifully illustrate the Korean expression. One afternoon, I stood at the elevator bank telling a work friend how embarrassed I was in replying all to an email from our office’s training coordinator. The training coordinator had emailed everyone in our office to schedule summer trainings for our interns and somehow I emailed everyone in the office that I had to reschedule a training. I turned to my friend and said “just tell me, how bad was it?”, clearly asking her so that she could assure me that it wasn’t the biggest blunder (my question, a good example of the Korean expression Dab-jeong-neo). My sweet friend waived away my error, saying that in the universe of reply-all errors, it was small potatoes. Just as I was about to exhale, my relief was interrupted by this young attorney I barely knew who leaned into our conversation to say “actually it was kind of a big deal”and smirked at me.

Other examples you surely have experienced–the person at an excruciating staff meeting that has run way past it’s projected end time who decides to bust out ten compound sentence questions, seemingly unaware that everyone is about to tear their hair out.

I recently had dinner with a friend who told me stories about her father-in-law, a true nunchiga eopda. I told her about the Korean expression, which delighted her as she realized she can now utter this Korean expression after each insensitive comment without consequence. My friend also insightfully pointed out that Korean seems similar to Yiddish in being delightfully specific to human behavior and giving humor, sarcasm and joy to moments.(We couldn’t think of an equivalent English expression for Dab-jeong, a question someone asks only wanting one answer-can you?). Perhaps zhlub (an insensitive, ill-mannered person) is the closest Yiddish equivalent to nunchiga eopda? Raised Jewish by my white mom, I’ve always loved Yiddish so I’m tickled by the idea that Korean and Yiddish have any overlap/similarities. (See some of my favorite Yiddish expressions that remind me of some of the Korean expressions about which I’ve written: Hok a chainik (to talk too much, to talk nonsense), kibitz (to offer comments which are often unwanted during a game, to give unasked for advice), loch in kop (literally hole in head, refers to things one definitely does not need), ongepotchket (messed up, slapped together without form, excessively and unesthetically decorated)).

I could wax on about nunchiga eopdas forever. A few years back my husband was at a preschool birthday party making small talk with a particularly grievous UES private school parent. Talking to my husband about his food manufacturing business, this father thought it appropriate to complain about his ” fucking Jewish lawyer….” , clearly not looking at my husband (who is in fact a Jewish lawyer). When my husband, outraged and surprised, announced “I am Jewish,” this nuchiga eopda said, “oh, I meant my Persian Jewish lawyer,” –still not reading the room.

Another example I’ve already written about before involving our UWS, University of Chicago educated neighbor who once saw my husband’s collection of books about Nixon in our large library of varied books, which somehow spurred him to share that he is basically a white supremacist who believes in the hierarchy of the races in terms of intelligence and abilities. (To which my husband said “Your beliefs are evil,” and left him alone in our diningroom. We are not friends with him anymore).

There are offensive, horrid nunchiga eopdas and the more lovable kind, e.g. sometimes, my husband excitedly discusses his record collection/audiophile interests in a way that misreads the audience (my kids and I) but is nonetheless sweet–his passion admirable. I think of my son and I meeting a teenage boy at synagogue event last year who wanted to talk at length about video games. We listened despite our minimal interest in video games because the kid’s rant was so earnest and pure.

I’m particularly charmed by the expression dab-jeong-neo. Do you have examples of questions you ask just to hear compliments/affirmations? My six year old and I have a goofy game that offers a skewed take on this expression. I bend her backwards over my knee so her head dangles perilously close to the floor and ask her questions like “Who makes better pancakes, Baba (paternal grandma) or me?” Only if she replies “you do,” will I pull her up. Other questions I ask “who is a perfect, patient mother?” You get the drift.

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