Social anxiety is more than just shyness – according to the NHS, it’s an intense fear that does not go away and affects everyday activities, self-confidence, relationships and work or school life. Poorna Bell tried nunchi – the Korean secret to happiness – to see if it could help her be less self-conscious and awkward in social interactions.
I remember walking home from my mate’s house feeling triumphant. It was the first time she’d introduced me to two of her oldest friends and it had gone incredibly well. We listened to music, I made jokes, I talked non-stop, and we all had a lot of fun.
Or so I thought.
A few days later, I suggested to my friend that we hang out again. She coughed and, without meeting my eyes, told me quietly that her friends hadn’t liked me very much. Apparently, I’d been annoying. A bit too boisterous. A bit too loud. A bit too… well, a bit too much.
It was hurtful, but it did make me think about the social cues I had so obviously missed in my interaction with them. And it completely transformed the way I socialise – albeit not necessarily for the better. Because, if you fast forward 23 years (and factor in my on-and-off relationship with anxiety), I’ve gone too far the other way.
Nowadays, I’m not at all oblivious to other people’s moods. Instead, I’m hypersensitive to them and desperate to say the right thing, which makes me come across as incredibly awkward because I overthink everything. This applies to work meetings, new social groups – hell, even my love life. I currently have a crush on someone and find myself incapable of stringing a sentence together without self-flagellating myself afterwards for saying the wrong thing.
To address my issues, which have grown increasingly debilitating over time, I almost considered hypnotherapy. But then I came across The Power Of Nunchi: The Korean Secret To Happiness And Success, written by Korean author and journalist Euny Hong – and I quickly realised that this book could prove the solution.
What is nunchi?
Nunchi (pronounced noon-chi) is ‘Korean emotional intelligence’ or using the art of ‘eye observation’ to read a room, understanding what people are thinking and feeling, and using that information to get your best possible outcome from any situation.
Rather than relying on an arbitrary feeling of whether or not people like you, it’s about observation and data gathering, and then using that information to be socially successful.
Or, as Hong notes in The Power Of Nunchi: “Buddhists say you can keep the monkey busy by telling it to focus on your breathing. So, when you feel social anxiety coming on, breathe deeply and calmly and remember that, for the next few minutes, you are an observer…
“Don’t think about what impression you might be making. Instead, study your counterparts as if you were being paid to file a Sherlock Holmes-type report on them later.”
I reached out to Hong herself, who readily informs me that she used to suffer from crippling social anxiety. Using the principles of nunchi (which have been practised by the likes of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos, according to the book) helped massively with this.
“Social anxiety feels as though it’s about other people, but really it’s self-generated. It’s all about you, you, you,” she says. “The anxiety arises because you are inside your own head: ‘Will I say something stupid? Will they like me?’
“Using your nunchi is a way of throwing cold water on this endless inward spiral and bringing it into a halt. You do this by using your eyes and your ears – by plugging yourself into the pre-existing energy of the room you are entering.”
Taking a moment to take a deep breath and assess the room – rather than launching yourself into conversation – can help greatly by keeping you mindful and grounded.
Chloe Brotheridge, hypnotherapist, coach and author of Brave New Girl: 7 Steps To Confidence, says: “When we take a deep, belly breath it activates the parasympathetic nervous system, calming us down. Breathing deeply anchors us in the present moment so we’re less likely to spiral into worrying about what people think of us.”
I decided to try and apply three of the book’s core takeaways to my life over the course of a week.
1. Don’t use humour as a defence mechanism
In the context of anxiety, humour is a defence mechanism. It often happens involuntarily because it’s also a coping mechanism, and it helps to relieve your own sense of awkwardness, especially if the other person laughs.
I rely on humour 90% of the time to diffuse a situation or make myself feel more comfortable. It has mixed results because sometimes I make a joke that might offend someone, and sometimes I don’t know if they are laughing out of politeness.
But Hong writes that: “It’s a good idea never to start any new conversation with a joke.” This is mainly because if you launch into a joke without assessing the situation, you’re likely to make the wrong kind of joke.
I’ll never forget going to a networking event – my worst kind of event – and making a joke to a group of people about how stingy the canapes were. One of the people in that group was responsible for the logistics of the event, and they then went into a panic that everyone was thinking that.
Currently, the main problem I face around jokes is that I have a crush on someone I work with. Every time I talk to him, I feel the need to launch into a joke, which more often than not makes fun of him. It also means I haven’t taken the time to check whether he’s actually in the mood for a joke. All of which means that rather than making him like me, he’s probably wondering what kind of irritating joke I’m going to make when we talk.
Hong explains that this doesn’t mean we can’t make any jokes ever, but it’s about how we do it. Employing the nunchi principle, the next time I see him, it takes literally every ounce of restraint not to make a joke. But I take a breath, start the conversation about how his day is, and when I finally do make a joke, he does a belly laugh as opposed to a nervous glance to the side.
So jokes can work, when they work alongside a conversation, rather than dominating or setting the tone of an interaction. It means that we stop relying on them as a way out of social awkwardness, as doing so means you miss so many other social cues.
Similarly, I also used it on a video call – always tricky at the best of times, because the chemistry is hard to gauge through a screen. Despite this, I stuck to the rules of nunchi: I smiled, but didn’t make any jokes, even when the other person started babbling about a bad connection. And it worked. I felt in control and remained completely unflustered, even when the twist of the meeting was revealed: that this was actually an interview for a job rather than a job I already thought was in the bag.
The interviewer asked me why I wanted the job, and, because I was operating from a calm space, I didn’t start blustering. Instead, I asked her what she already knew about me, so I could keep the information relevant. And what’s more, I didn’t talk over her either (usually a key flaw of mine when I’m desperate to make a lasting impression). I came away from the call feeling a lot more in control and I ended up getting the job.
2. Empty your mind and check the temperature
When you enter a room, it’s important to clear your mind and almost detach yourself from any social situation in the beginning, in order to give yourself the space to observe what’s going on.
For instance, when you go into a room, rather than feeling you need to be noisy or talk a lot, just take a breath to observe what’s going on. It helps you to sense if someone is having a bad day or if two people aren’t talking to each other.
That then helps you gauge the ‘temperature’ of the room. So, rather than awkwardly babble, you wait until the answer presents itself to you. Observing in this way, Hong says, can help with job promotions (particularly when it comes to picking the right moment to ask for one), dating, coping with family holidays and navigating social groups that aren’t in your comfort zone.
I tried this at a children’s birthday party, which is my idea of hell on wheels. Rather than go for jokes or make awkward statements about not having any kids, I took the time to walk around and empty my mind. I noticed who had kids and seemed frazzled, who had kids and seemed able to have a conversation, and those who didn’t have children. I started with the latter group and it was a much easier way to ease myself into the party.
It’s also a point to remember again in romantic situations. “Most people, when faced with someone they like, make the mistake of talking too much in order to sell themselves as the perfect mate,” says Hong. “But you are robbing yourself of a valuable opportunity to gather data and make an objective determination about the person.”
I usually begin interactions with a negative rhetoric circling around my head: my crush doesn’t want to talk to me, they aren’t at all attracted to me – the usual. But, using my newfound nunchi, I actually managed to “gather some data”.
They initiate conversation, which tells me that they like talking to me. And, this gives me the confidence to actually ask them questions, which means that I’ve started learning more about them and figuring out what I like about them (beyond the fact that they’re smoking hot, of course).
It feels like a huge step, and a much more mature one at that.
3. Practise the art of ‘roundness’
“Western society tends to reward pushy behaviour,” writes Hong. She goes on to describe it as using your “elbows” to create attention and how sometimes, we’d be better off “shutting up”. I definitely do this in a room, where I think I need to be the loudest person in order to deflect from my awkwardness.
Roundness is about creating inner stability. “The next time you find yourself in a conflict, don’t just say whatever comes to mind,” explains Hong. “First take a deep breath and ask yourself two simple questions: ‘What am I doing, and why?’”
This is something I struggle with a lot. I want to be a beacon of calm, but often I find myself saying things to friends that create conflict. I tell myself that “I’m just being honest” and “Wouldn’t they rather know than not know?” but the most recent incident made me think that it isn’t the case: I was relaying a story to a friend in a jokey way – we’d been discussing certain characteristics of our friendship group – and she got really upset. I hadn’t paid attention to the social cues and created unnecessary conflict, when I should’ve just kept my mouth shut.
Ultimately, it’s OK to be quiet sometimes
Probably the most valuable thing I’ve learned from nunchi is this: listening to your gut is real. It’s not based on woo-woo: instead, it comes from the many things you’ve subconsciously noted about how another person speaks, behaves and how others react around them. And being consciously aware of all these things gives you more power.
While it may seem counterintuitive to manage anxious thoughts by focussing on what the other person is doing, nunchi can help in one big area which is that it forces you to slow your thoughts down.
“I think that anything which helps us to be more mindful and present can help,” says Brotheridge. “Slowing down, getting present by tuning into your surroundings and taking your time before moving into a social situation can all be calming to the nervous system and a gentler way of being with yourself when fears set in.”
So, yes, taking a breath and remaining quiet can be far more effective than being the loudest voice in the room. But it’s also worth remembering that, when you do speak, not everyone is going to love you, and that’s OK.
“Anxiety sufferers,” says Hong, “almost always focus on the people who dislike them or cause the most ill feeling. This is natural, but it creates an imbalance of power, where you are unconsciously trying to please the most unpleasable.”
Or, to quote Hong’s book, you don’t have to be the best in order to win; all you need is your eyes and ears.
The Power Of Nunchi: The Korean Secret To Happiness And Success by Euny Hong is out now (£12.99).