Why Talking to People Is So Awkward Right Now
Six months isolating with your cat is a long time
After months of self-quarantining with her girlfriend in Brooklyn, Nicole Boyce recently opened up her in-person social circle — to her neighbor’s cat, who she’s sitting.
So far, it hasn’t been the most confidence-inspiring experience. “My main social interaction is this cat,” she says. Whenever she does feel comfortable meeting up with other people again, “I’m nervous I’m going to be talking to my friends like, ‘Did you eat all your food? You gonna come and play?’” With only one human (and now one feline) companion for months on end, Boyce says, she’s concerned her conversational skills have withered.
It’s a fair concern. Everyone, to varying degrees, is awkward right now. Maybe you’ve recently gone in for a hug, stopped yourself at the last minute, and done a weird little jig to cover it up. Or laughed just to fill the silence after someone shared an extremely unfunny life update. Or mumbled a string of random syllables before remembering that the phrase you were looking for was Hi, how are you?
If you’re kind of amused but also vaguely disturbed by how exhausting it suddenly takes to be around other people, know that there’s a good reason, and also an easy fix.
Social skills are learned behaviors. Through a process called socialization, we all figure out how to function in society by observing the social norms, expectations, values, and perspectives of the people around us. As part of that, we rely on our memory and history of past social interactions when determining how to appropriately interact with others, says Nicola Pierre-Smith, a therapist in Philadelphia.
Ordinarily, those memories are relatively fresh, a supply that gets constantly replenished throughout the day: We make small talk with neighbors and baristas, greet co-workers in the elevator, catch up with friends over drinks. By now, though, most of us have gone a while without practicing the small nuances of those rituals, and what once felt instinctive may require some active thought.