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25 February 2021

Should we worry that the pandemic has made us socially awkward?

The loneliness of lockdown has weakened our social skills, but there is reason to believe they will recover.

By Sophie McBain

Apart from my husband and kids, who hardly count at this stage, the people I see most often are the two guys who work at the nearest corner shop and the staff at my preferred local café. My near-daily conversations with them are frequently a bit weird. Sometimes I haven’t used my voice in so long that when I order my cappuccino my sentence starts off with a squeak; I’ve become hopeless at small talk. 

Friends of mine frequently joke about how when we are finally let loose to socialise we’ll have forgotten how to do it. Several widely shared tweets suggest that it is not uncommon to feel this way. “Every minimal interaction I have with strangers is awkward,” reads one “All of this vaccine news is making me so excited for the summer when everyone reveals the unique way they are socially broken,” reads another. The New York Times published a piece in September arguing that “we’re all socially awkward now”. Citing research into the effects of social isolation on astronauts, prisoners, soldiers and hermits, the piece argued that “social skills are like muscles that atrophy from lack of use”. 

I remain unconvinced that meaningful parallels can be drawn between most people’s experience of lockdown and the acute isolation and social deprivation experienced by high-security prisoners in the US, but there is, for instance, a wealth of research into the way that feeling lonely can hamper a person’s social skills. “When loneliness is protracted, impaired regulation, combined with distorted social cognition, makes us less likely to acknowledge someone else’s perspective. We may become less able to evaluate other people’s intentions, which can make us socially awkward,” writes John T Cacioppo, in Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, a seminal book for the burgeoning science of loneliness. His research found that lonely people are more likely to perceive other people’s reactions negatively, and less able to find social connection with others.

[See also: Kate Mossman: Am I the only one scared of the return of fun?

Ty Tashiro, a psychologist and the author of Awkward: The Science of Why We’re Socially Awkward and Why that’s Awesome had, as one might expect, a more optimistic perspective. “The good news to start with is people are going to be fine,” he told me. He was expecting our social skills to “rebound” soon enough. This is because studies suggest that a person’s social competence is a relatively stable character trait: socially competent children tend to mature into socially competent adults, the more awkward among us usually stay awkward. 

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The embarrassing moments many people are experiencing now are often “deviations from minor social expectations”, Tashiro said, such as when you have a piece of spinach stuck in your teeth. So awkward. Rather than reflecting problems with our social skills, they are linked to the clumsy readjustments we all have to make when we interact during a pandemic: the masks that make it harder to read one another’s expressions, the fact that we stand further apart than feels natural, the odd little dance you might do when deciding whether or not to go in for an illicit hug, an officially sanctioned fist-bump or perhaps a lame half-wave. 

Tashiro told me that he had also started occasionally feeling self-conscious about his social skills. He’d seen a friend recently and had to tell her, “You’re the first person I’ve spoken to all day, so I’m a little awkward,” but he soon warmed up. That was his point: our social skills may be like a muscle, but that doesn’t mean the pandemic has caused them to atrophy. Rather, we have to remember that even elite athletes need to warm up, especially if they’ve been sitting at home all day.

[See also: How we misunderstand depression]

Those who found socialising difficult even before the pandemic should remember there are upsides to awkwardnesss. It is correlated with giftedness, not because people who are socially awkward have higher IQs but because they are more likely to have obsessive interests, Tashiro said. These obsessive interests make it more likely they will excel in their chosen field, and also that they will be too distracted to pick up on certain social cues. 

After Tashiro published his book he received many messages from readers married to socially awkward people, who had noticed that their partner’s awkwardness often made them more sensitive and perceptive. Not wanting to upset people, they had spent a lot of time reflecting on occasions when they had inadvertently done so and trying to decipher the social rules that come more naturally to others. 

In this way, if you’re feeling socially awkward at the moment it might be something to feel proud of. “It’s probably good to feel a bit anxious, because we should be more vigilant about being socially mindful so that we don’t make someone else feel fearful or uncomfortable,” Tashiro said. “It’s just objectively dangerous these days to break social norms.” Sometimes, even navigating a socially distanced supermarket can feel unbelievably awkward, but these moments will pass. “As a psychologist, I’m constantly in awe of how resilient the human spirit is,” Tashiro said. 

[See also: How Covid-19 is breaking up friendships]