A little over a week ago, I headed out with family for dinner to a restaurant and while I was there, I bumped into two friends I had not seen since March 2020. I was delighted, yet there was this strange awkwardness. It felt like my friends and I were trying to understand the new social etiquette. I had so many questions in my head when I bumped into these friends: How should I greet them, would it be okay to hug them or should I shake hands? I found myself tongue-tied, unable to understand how to start the conversation.
As an extrovert who loves chance interactions, I found this strange. Over the last few months, I have mostly been home and now, when I am beginning to step out, the transition is coming with its own re-entry anxiety. Clients in therapy have brought up similar concerns, discussing how heading for work, going to in-person meetings or inviting someone over for dinner is now accompanied by feelings of unease.
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I think most of us didn’t imagine that meeting colleagues or friends in person would be difficult or anxiety-provoking. We believed that our need to meet family, friends and co-workers was so great that we would gradually fall back into old patterns. Sadly, the world has changed— and so have we. We need to remember that we have remained indoors for a long time, engaged in social distancing and experienced grief, so our anxiety response is still an attempt at keeping us safe.
This re-entry into a world where so much has opened up can be overwhelming and scary. Emerging new research seems to indicate that globally people are experiencing nervousness, unease when it comes to going back to offices, schools or even meeting friends in small groups. For those who have struggled with social anxiety disorder, this re-entry can be particularly difficult.
So, if you are feeling nervous or socially anxious at this stage of the pandemic, when you are meeting others for the first time, remember that it’s normal. Everyone needs to remember that they are not the only ones feeling awkward. There are many who are feeling socially conscious but don’t know how to articulate the feeling. So, choose to be kind to yourself and don’t beat yourself up for feeling awkward. We are all feeling it to varying degrees.
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The pandemic has impacted the ease with which we interacted with each other. It has also changed the entire landscape of hosting and social interactions. We don’t yet have new templates we can use while interacting with others. So it may be a good idea to pace yourself, keeping it gentle and slow when it comes to social interactions. It may also be important to ask yourself whether you have certain preferences if you plan to meet people or happen to bump into friends or acquaintances. A client mentioned: “I am not comfortable either receiving a hug now or extending myself to hug others. I also don’t remove my mask until I am eating and most people around me have adapted to it.”
My sense is that social situations can be awkward the first few times but as we encounter these situations over and over, we will become more comfortable in how to engage and what to ask. Now, when I bump into others, I generally look for their non-verbals cues and directly ask for their preference when it comes to a handshake or a hug. Sometimes, calling out the awkwardness jokingly also works!
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Allow yourself to develop a new language when it comes to asking others about safety protocols, their preferences, and be sensitive to others when it comes to social interactions.
As we begin to feel safer, we will find again our shared spaces, people and community, and that itself will gradually reduce our anxiety.
Sonali Gupta is a Mumbai-based clinical psychologist. She is the author of the book Anxiety: Overcome It And Live Without Fear and has a YouTube channel, Mental Health with Sonali.