“I like your hair!” a woman tells me as we sidestep each other in the street on my way home from the post office – an outing that doubles up as my daily sanctioned local exercise trip. “Oh! Um, yes! Wow! Cool! Okay!” I reply, not knowing how to take the compliment and forgetting I have two strips of pink hair framing my face (dyed when I was bored during lockdown one). The woman gives me a puzzled look and walks off.
That was a few weeks ago now. I haven’t left the house in eight days. Each morning, I log on to Google Hangouts with my colleagues, as I’ve done five days a week for nearly a year. After work, I FaceTime my mum’s ear – she can’t hear me properly and doesn’t realise she’s still on video. At weekends, I have a beer and join a murder-mystery-Zoom-birthday-party with a mix of friends and friends of friends. That’s a social invite I wouldn’t have received pre-pandemic.
Is it any surprise I’m awkward as hell on my few occasions out in the wild?
Small talk and strangers make me uncomfortable at the best of times, and Covid times aren’t those. It’s not that I don’t like socialising. I love being out, in a group. But groups aren’t a thing right now. And even when it comes to friends I’ve known for years but haven’t seen in a long time – cheers, Corona!– I’m nervous and unsure what to do with myself or say to them.
The pandemic and its ever-shifting rules and restrictions have changed our social structures and stripped us of even the most everyday exchanges. Whether it’s missing those non-verbal gestures or the very real absence of physical proximity and touch, we’ve become accustomed to a feeling of social awkwardness. Navigating basic interactions online or off can feel like a quagmire. And I’m hearing similar from introverts and extroverts alike.
Could it be possible that social distancing has made us forget how to interact? Has a year of isolation eroded our social skills down to a point of no return?
Blaming the tech
Four voices are speaking over each other. It’s impossible to understand or get a word in. Someone’s screen has frozen during a key part of the conversation and no-one can hear me. Oh wait, that’s because I’ve forgotten I’m still on mute.
Video calls are terrible. I hate them. They’re exhausting and uncomfortable and ever multiplying. And after a year of looking at small pixellated faces in squares – our own and other people’s – they’ve made us more self-critical than ever.
As psychotherapist Kelly Hearn, co-founder of the Examined Life therapy collective, explains: “Having to stare at each other face-to-face for every encounter rather than being able to take in the entire scene, we are left without the myriad gestures and non-verbal cues which means our brains have to work harder to try and read a situation and with relatively less information.”
And that’s the external bit. “There is also the constant ‘mirror’ of a tiny ‘self-view’ window vying for our (critical) attention,” she adds. “The whole process, repeatedly, has been pretty emotionally draining, so it’s no wonder some of us are feeling an element of social anxiety now more than previously.”
As time has gone on, the novelty of video calling has also worn off. A weariness and heaviness has set in and our inclination is often to retreat – which is more likely to impact our social calls (optional) than our work ones (not so much).
“Zoom fatigue means we are recoiling from yet more time online,” says Hearn. “We’re left not feeling especially connected to friends and uneasy about what this means for relationships moving forward.”
Ultimately, she suggests, “it’s this lack of connection and uncertainty that makes interaction awkward, as we fear the worst and judge our attempts.”
The lost art of small talk
I used to think exchanging pleasantries was a time waster, a tactic I used to fill awkward silences when I didn’t know what else to say. But, as it turns out, I miss small talk, we all miss small talk – the chance to chat mindlessly about random things, and flex our social muscles. To interact, not just transact.
It’s reached the point where I’ve not only forgotten how to respond appropriately to someone I don’t know (as with the hair compliment), I’m overthinking even the smallest facial movement on a Zoom call. How on earth did I used to smile and casually talk at work events and parties with ease?
We may feel we’ve lost that in-person spark somewhere along the way, but all is not lost, says life coach and author Ruth Kudzi. The first step, she advises, is to recognise that social anxiety lives inside all of our minds rent-free.
That awkwardness has the potential to impact our confidence, relationships or everyday activities, from parties and social gatherings to busy workspaces and meetings. These days, it can even make going for a walk a tall order.
“Pre-pandemic, many had put coping mechanisms in place and often day-to-day living and what is called ‘exposure therapy’ would help alleviate some worries and fears,” Kudzi explains.
“However, during lockdown those who suffer social anxiety are not gathering experiences that disprove these worries and fears. We’ve also had time to dwell and over worry about the future, meaning that socialising, reconnecting, and getting back into the world is overwhelming and feels harder than ever before.”
In short, it’s made us all feel like awkward teenagers again – consumed by newly troubled thoughts of going out and managing in group situations.
As one usually extroverted colleague told me after a socially-distanced meet up in the summer with work friends: “I came away cringing at myself, undecided whether I’d said too little or too much, and worrying whatever I had said was unbelievably uncool or off-key – like I was back in school or something.”
“We need to be kind to our inner awkward teenagers; we went through enough back then!” Hearn responds, adding that as adults, we can “depersonalise the awkwardness” and appreciate that everyone has struggled in some way over the past year. “We’re all a little nervous about re-finding our socialising feet,” she says. “We no longer need to put on a ‘cool kid’ facade and can instead speak more truthfully about how we’re feeling – awkwardness and all.”
The best way to get over the discomfort is by addressing it – it can be enough to neutralise any pressure or pretence. “Breaking the ice allows others to share their own awkwardness,” says Hearn. “Humans connect in our vulnerability.”
Getting back out there
Hearn’s main advice for reclaiming our social lives is to “keep our intentions simple but sweet”. A good place to start, she says, is “reminding ourselves of freedoms lost over the last year: the pleasure of the other’s face not obscured by a screen, the ability to enjoy a hot beverage or meal prepared by someone else, the sound of laughter and the warmth of the spring sun.”
Self-confessed introvert Sarah Shuttle, 33, a Berkshire-based brand stylist, initially felt relief during lockdown at not feeling obligated to socialise in situations she didn’t enjoy – but she says she is surprised how much the pandemic has made her miss in-person interactions.
“It’s made me appreciate the way they enrich my life,” she admits. “I took for granted that I would always have the opportunity to socialise in real life, and now I’ve seen what it’s like without that choice.”
As lockdown lifts and life gets going again, Shuttle won’t be diving headfirst into socialising just because she can. Instead, she says she is planning a gradual reintroduction – ie. as restrictions ease up, she’ll ease herself in.
“I am a little anxious about socialising because it feels exposing,” she admits the start of the end of lockdown. “The less I go out, the less I want to go out. So, despite my appreciation for the freedom it will bring, there is a heightened anxiety. I definitely won’t be alone in that though!”
And she’s right. It’s understandable to feel awkward post-lockdown, even with our close friends or everyday colleagues. We’ve been robbed of normal social interaction for the best part of a year. But while taking baby steps in our social lives might feel weird or uncomfortable, soon enough we’ll bounce back.
“I’ll start slowly and with people I know well,” says Shuttle, who has no plans to go clubbing come June 21, for example, but might show her face at a pub. “I know any awkwardness won’t last forever, I need to allow myself to feel it and realise that it won’t kill me – there are worse things.”