I’ve always been an extrovert by nature and found it easy to talk to most people. I’ve kissed the Blarney Stone. I’m usually at ease in groups of people, even when I don’t know anyone.
But lately, that’s changed.
Venturing out into gatherings or into offices is anxiety-inducing. In-person exchanges are exhausting and filled with awkward pauses. I find myself saying the wrong thing, feeling at a loss for words, and generally being awkward in social situations. The easy conversational cadence that used to come naturally seems stuck in park.
I’m afraid I’ve become socially awkward.
Apparently, I’m not alone. A March 2021 survey by YouGov found that roughly two in five (39%) of Americans are very or fairly nervous about socializing again. But that’s okay, says social scientist Ty Tashiro, author of Awkward: The Science of Why We’re Socially Awkward and Why That’s Awesome. It’s natural for people to feel uncomfortable about socializing, especially if they’ve been mostly locked down or more isolated than normal for more than a year. “It’s highly unlikely that their social ability has atrophied. It’s still there,” he says. “I think what people are experiencing right now is just some uncertainty about how to engage in specific social situations.” And, fortunately, there are some things we can do to get our social game back.
Start with context
“Awkward moments are typically just deviations from small social expectations,” Tashiro says. For most of our lives, those expectations have been pretty consistent. For example, in the U.S., it’s customary to maintain about 18 inches of personal space from the person to whom you’re speaking. You may dress and interact a certain way. When we deviate from the norm, our brains may react in “an alarming way,” he says. “That’s why when we do something awkward, we feel that flood of emotion, we feel that our faces may blush, or hearts race.”
Now, however, many of those expectations have been turned on their heads. Personal space is now typically six feet. You may need to be wearing a mask, which can affect how easy it is to converse with someone else. People have varying expectations about social graces like handshakes vs. elbow bumps. We’re in the process of redefining our social expectations, so it’s understandable that many feel anxious or awkward, Tashiro says.
Control what you can
To help yourself feel more at ease, think through the situation you’re facing and try to anticipate the interactions or situations that are making you nervous, and try to prepare for them, Tashiro suggests. Are you worried about making small talk? Think about some topics you can have at the ready. Are you concerned about how to handle lunchtime? Make a plan with a coworker in advance so you can address each person’s comfort level with dining out and social distancing. “[Once] you’ve taken all the unknown out of a specific situation, that’ll make you feel more self-confident,” he says.
If you find yourself struggling with small talk and conversation, practice with the people with whom you interact every day. “Baristas, cashiers, waiters, and such. The people in these positions almost always appreciate someone trying to make their jobs less dull or difficult,” says social interaction specialist Patrick King. He suggests setting small goals: Achieve a 10-second interaction with them before firing off your order. (Obviously, read the room. Your barista probably doesn’t want to talk about the weather during the morning coffee rush.)
King warns that this might feel odd at first. “But you’ll start to get a sense for people’s reactions, your timing, your expressions, and what makes you feel comfortable in an interaction again. After a few practice runs, you can start to ramp up to 20-second interactions, and so on,” he says.
Beware of avoidance
One thing you don’t want to do is keep putting off getting back out in the world, says Alice Boyes, former clinical psychologist and author of The Healthy Mind Toolkit: Simple Strategies to Get Out of Your Own Way and Enjoy Your Life. “Avoidance increases anxiety, no matter what the reason for it,” she says. Your social skills may be a bit rusty, but you’ll likely find that they strengthen with use, just as an athlete gets stronger after coming back from an injury, she says.
Awkwardness can be bonding
Sometimes, those awkward moments can actually work in your favor, allowing you to show and share a moment of vulnerability with someone else, Tashiro says. “Having an awkward moment is almost never the end of the world,” he says. Many people are feeling the same way. And if there’s humor in the moment, too, it can actually be a bonding experience.
“One of the best things you can do when something is awkward is just to joke around with it a little bit,” he says. “Let’s say at dinner, you might say something like, ‘I guess awkward pauses are part of getting back into it.'” And people will likely react with a giggle, he adds, because it’s true.
Is there someone you know whose social skills are still strong after pandemic lockdowns? Observe them, Tashiro says. “This is a tried-and-true trick for awkward kids. Actually, a lot of socially awkward kids are extremely observant of people who are more socially adept, or who feel more socially competent,” he says. So, take note of how your more confident colleague starts conversations or deals with missteps. You may pick up a tactic or two that helps you feel more at ease.
Get help if you need it
If your concern or anxiety is preventing you from getting back out into the world, the issue may be bigger than just jitters about social awkwardness. It might be a good idea to seek help from a mental health professional, Boyes suggests. “People wait an extraordinarily long time to get help for things. And [addressing mental health] doesn’t need to be intense. There’s research on single sessions and cognitive behavioral therapy being helpful,” she says. If you need to find providers, check with your health insurance company or employee assistance program to start.