Why Talking to People Is So Awkward Right Now

Six months isolating with your cat is a long time

Photo: Sarah Casillas/Getty Images

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.

The good news, at least, is that the loss is only temporary. “Social skills are like riding a bicycle,” says Ty Tashiro, a psychologist and the author of Awkward: The Science of Why We’re Socially Awkward and Why That’s Awesome. “We recover our social skills fairly quickly even when we’ve been isolated or away from people. People aren’t going to have their social skills atrophy over the course of the past couple months.”

But the world is fundamentally different now. Socializing may be like riding a bike, but the terrain has some hills and potholes that weren’t there before. Going in for a hug, standing too close, mishearing a comment because of a mask — there are plenty of new considerations that can lead to social faux pas.

Tashiro’s recommendation: Just acknowledge the weirdness of it all. Put it out in the open. When every get-together is preceded by a discussion of what activities you feel safe doing and what kinds of greetings are acceptable, trying to cosplay normal is a futile exercise, anyway. No one can reasonably expect the same free-flowing, carefree conversation we used to enjoy when it’s happening from six careful feet away.

Still, if you want to spend less time fixating on your own awkwardness and more time actually enjoying your friends’ company, Pierre-Smith says the best thing you can do is get outside your own head. Be a little more observant than usual. Watch how the people around you are interacting with one another. “How are they starting conversations and ending them?” she says. “Practice active listening and acting engagement skills.”

And keep practicing. By now, many of us have gotten to a place where isolation feels normal — which means that any (safe, socially distanced) return to human interaction can feel prohibitively draining, especially for anyone prone to social anxiety, says Stefan Hofmann, the director of the Psychotherapy and Emotion Research Laboratory at Boston University.

“If you are cut off from others, you will have to push yourself a bit harder” to reacclimate, Hofmann says, and we’re currently more cut off than any other time in modern history. But “the more you’re exposed to others around you, the more comfortable you are naturally,” he says. Hofmann suggests keeping up a social routine, so you’re constantly flexing your conversational muscles, whether that’s a weekly call with a family member or a regular socially distanced walk with a friend.

Remember, too, that especially right now, no one really cares how awkward you’re being — empathy and grace are far more important than sparkling conversational skills. “Even though we might have a few awkward stumbles at the start as we get rolling with people,” Tashiro says, “the things that really matter should remain unchanged.” Just aim to be a good friend and a kind human. The rest will come back to you eventually. And in the meantime, you’ll get some funny stories out of it while you wait.

Writes about lifestyle, trends, and pop psychology for The Atlantic, New York Times, Rolling Stone, Playboy, Washington Post, and more.

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