Feeling socially ‘rusty’?

With socializing at a near halt during the pandemic, our social skills may have suffered a bit and we might need to retrain them so we can interact socially with others again.

It’s not surprising many of us might be feeling socially ‘rusty’. We’ve all, to varying extents, experienced loneliness and social isolation during the pandemic. For many of us, it can be hard to think about being around people again. The possibility of someday returning to the office or being in a crowded room with other people without a mask on can be daunting for many. We’ve been forced to be asocial, at least in physical terms, for more than a year now. As a result, many may be finding that any in-person social interaction is awkward – it feels like we have to re-learn how to sit in a room with another human.

So, when things open up again, is there going to be a learning curve to feeling ‘normal’? Have our social muscles atrophied in some way, and do we have to ‘retrain’ them?

Fortunately, these muscles are fairly resilient, and it won’t take long for us to return to some version of a social normal. Still, some hiccups are to be expected along the way, so it will help to be prepared for them.

Before Covid-19, this kind of post-isolation anxiety was most often suffered by people who re-enter the civilian world after prison, wartime deployment, humanitarian aid work or remote expeditions. It’s fact. The challenge now is that so many more of us will be experiencing some aspect of this all at once and coming back to social situations with others who likely have their own fears too. Of course, as individual circumstances vary so widely, so too will the transition back into post-pandemic social life.

So how do we relearn how to be together again?

Give yourself permission to set small, achievable goals. Accept that certain activities may feel tough for awhile and accept that other people are going to have different responses than you. For example, the friend or family member who wants to eat inside the restaurant when you don’t, or who is ready to get on a plane and take a vacation.

We might event need to teach ourselves how to greet someone or hug again. Your timing might be off for a hug, or a joke or even a compliment. How do you look someone in the eye so that it’s not intrusive? How do you compliment someone? You might not have done it for a year. Accept the fact that we are all out of practice.

Rather than be overwhelmed by everything at once — for example, going to a party where you have to adjust to greeting acquaintances, eating with others and attempting to make small talk — all at the same time — why not take things step by step?

Here are some tips that will help you strengthen your social skills as you ease back into your community.

Share food with someone.

Eating a meal together can be a strong cure for loneliness. An outdoor picnic or a socially distanced get together is a great and safe option for reconnecting with friends and family. Please follow local health and safety guidelines when planning.

Tell someone a joke in person.

You may be out of practice and have to work on your timing. But making eye contact and laughing together is essential to feeling connected to someone else — even if the joke falls flat, being silly together will feel really good.

Ask someone what they’re listening to or reading right now.

Listen to music together; exchange books and have an in-person discussion afterward. 

Reach out to someone you’ve lost touch with.

Make a phone call, send a meaningful text, write an email. It’s time to start rebuilding the larger social infrastructure outside our immediate circles.

Strike up a socially distanced conversation with a stranger.

Pick someone with whom you have passing contact: a fellow dog-walker or the cashier at a grocery store. Make eye contact; talk to each of them as a person rather than as a function. It’s so easy to ignore the human behind a mask. Make the effort to ask something outside the normal transaction — what’s changed since the last time you saw each other, what they’re looking forward to when this pandemic ends.

In the meantime, maintain your self-care regime.

This is not the time to give up the online Kettlebell classes you started while in quarantine or stop cooking those healthy meals.

Get outside when you can, make sure you are not socially isolating, meditate, and most importantly be kind to yourself. Have compassion and be patient with yourself and for others as you navigate through this new normal. Things will change for the better.