I was an introvert long before the coronavirus forced everyone indoors. I was already working from home and had fallen into a moderate, much more cloistered style of living after years of burning myself out on liquor- and drug-fueled partying. It would be fair to say that my social life was hanging by a thread before this pandemic, and the ensuing social-distancing orders swiftly snipped that thread. Essentially, I’ve completely forgotten how to be social.
Having friends is important to me, though, and I feel a sort of duty to at least give socializing an honest go. So, a little shaken by the state of things, I told myself that once the shackles of quarantine have been unfastened, my social life would be paid more attention. But out of practice after such a long period of retirement — in part because of these quarantines — I need some help, so I reached out to a couple professionals for advice on not being a total cringelord. If you need help getting back into the social swing of things, too, come along as we learn how to deal with other humans again.
Take It Slow
First of all, in many areas (read: pretty much everywhere except Florida and Georgia), quarantine orders are still in place, and even when they do loosen up, you may need to make a gradual move toward socializing again. “Respect that everyone will have their own pace for resuming socializing,” says Alice Boyes, retired clinical psychologist and author of The Anxiety Toolkit and The Healthy Mind Toolkit. “If you’re more cautious by nature, you’re likely to take a slower approach than some other people, and there’s nothing wrong with this. It’s no doubt smarter than anyone who rushes to host a 49-person party the second we’re allowed gatherings under 50 people. Don’t allow yourself to be peer pressured into situations that feel unsafe.”
Suzanne Degges-White, professor and chair of the Counseling and Higher Education Department at Northern Illinois University and author of the Lifetime Connections blog, agrees, adding that we should all learn to accept that some of our friends may have different approaches to socializing when this is all over. “Remember that safety is still essential, even if you’re ready to throw caution to the wind and give people you haven’t seen in a while a bear hug,” she says. “It’s through following social-distancing guidelines and good hygiene that people’s health is secured — and so, care for yourself by caring for others’ well-being. Don’t take others’ fears or hesitation to re-engage personally; it’s always about ‘me,’ not ‘you.’ Recognize that some people may have more health concerns due to ‘invisible, underlying conditions’ and may pass on social opportunities once the official lockdown lifts.”
In fact, we may even have to get used to greeting each other in new, less physical ways. “Most of us have gotten used to not shaking hands when we meet,” Degges-White says. “Find a new way to greet people that reflects your personality — a hand to your heart, a quick bow, a smile and salute, a nod of the head. This connects us to others without having to pass along potential pathogens.” Just try your best not to be too cringy about it.
Do Some Real Activities, Rather Than Strictly Social Ones
Having something to do while socializing, rather than having to focus solely on holding a conversation, can be much, much easier on your now-unsocialized mind when life begins again. “When life outside the house does open back up, you might prefer activity-based socializing, like going hiking or rock climbing or a game of tennis,” Boyes explains. “There are lots of forms of socializing that don’t involve crowds or close contact with lots of other people. Activity-based socializing tends to take the pressure off conversation, too. And being physically active can help reduce feelings of self-consciousness, because you need to pay attention to what you’re doing, rather than what’s going on inside your own head.”
This can also be a good way to show off anything you learned or got into during quarantine, even if it was just binge-watching a new show. “Many of us have learned how to appreciate the simple life in lockdown,” Boyes says. “Try to translate this back into ‘normal’ life once lockdown ends. Whatever new skill you’ve been working on in lockdown — e.g., pizza making — invite other people to share in that once lockdown ends, and to share their new skills with you.”
Continue the Zoom Chats
Quarantine orders or not, connecting digitally is simply easier for some of us — especially us introverts — so keep those video calls coming. “Some people may have truly blossomed under the stay-at-home orders, as many introverts were able to engage with others through a ‘filter,’ such as Skype, Zoom and FaceTime, which can make social engagement less taxing or stressful,” Degges-White explains. “However, once we begin to leave our homes and gather in social settings — wearing masks, keeping six or more feet between one another and carrying our ‘antibodies or immunization cards’ — our more introverted friends may still be more easily accessible through communication technology than through face-to-face engagement, and that’s okay.”
Therefore, Degges-White says, “Don’t rule out continuing virtual get-togethers when the restrictions are lifted in your community. For some, the at-home-via-video get-togethers can be a lot easier to manage and schedule, and they may still feel safer than cramming into restaurants, theaters or sports arenas, regardless of what’s government-approved to be open.”
Show Your Friends How Much You Missed Them
For many of us, including myself, quarantine has been a moment of reckoning, a time to rethink our relationships, so if you want to tell your bro how much you missed him, do it, um, bro. “Emotionally, we’ve realized just how important our social connections are to our survival,” Degges-White says. “So find creative ways to communicate your appreciation to others — doing favors, giving out tokens of appreciation, sending thoughtful texts just to say, ‘I’m thinking of you and appreciate you.’ Communicate openly with all the people you need and depend on, even those you hadn’t realized you’d cared so much about.”
Put Your Quarantine Coping Skills to Good Use
In quarantine, many of us have learned to replicate the things we love and miss about the outside world, and you can apply those skills when things begin to open back up, too. “Whatever you’re missing, consider trying to replicate that in a safer way,” Boyes says. “If you’re missing live music, then who do you know who plays an instrument who might be interested in being in the band at your backyard barbecue? Or, assuming we’re all still avoiding major travel, consider travel-themed socializing, like a French-themed picnic or a Thai curry night.”
“Because there are things we can’t do in lockdown, you might be thinking of things you’ve always wanted to do, but never gotten around to,” Boyes continues. “Keep some notes on those, and prioritize anything that will still allow you to keep up social distancing.”
Boyes especially recommends anything that involves going outdoors, because, well, we could all use a little outside time after this. “Again, outdoor activities are likely to be less anxiety-provoking than going to a crowded restaurant or bar,” she says. “Consider kayaking, camping or even renting an Airbnb by a lake with a couple of friends.”
Stop Worrying So Much, Because Frankly, Everyone Is Going to Suck at Socializing After This
“If you’re nervous that so much time at home will have made you socially awkward, don’t be,” Boyes emphasizes. “Everyone’s in the same boat. There’s nothing that you particularly need to do to get your confidence back. It’ll come back on its own once you start socializing again.”
Furthermore, a lot of people are going to be on different pages after this, and we’ll need to be patient with each other. As Degges-White explains, “There are likely going to be three camps of people: Those who are eager to jump back into embraces and air kisses right away; those who’ll be super careful, keep their physical distance and keep their masks on, regardless of who they’re near; and those who are going to be careful, but willing to get close to others they know to be safe.”
And again, no matter where your friends land, don’t take it personally.
And If You Liked Your New, Less Social Lifestyle, Hey, That’s Fine, Too
“Even the most extreme introverts generally need some social contact,” Boyes explains. “However, it’s also fine if you realized you like aspects of the slow, simple life that has been forced on us. It’s important not to rush back into doing life the way we did before. Most of us have probably discovered something we like about having more time at home to ourselves and having a smaller social circle, such as reconnecting with parents or siblings. Identify what you’ve liked and retain those elements. But likewise, identify what you’ve missed, and bring those back. Be creative in solving the puzzle of how you can have both. If you’ve enjoyed working from home and been productive, consider asking to retain up to three work-from-home days each week. Typically, two days in the office is enough to help us feel connected to our teams.”
Phew, that was a lot of social talk. Maybe I’ll just stay inside after all.