Zoom meetings. Virtual happy hours. Facetime dates. We've been living in a pandemic world for over a year now, and for better or worse, many of us are used to our new social routines.
But as vaccinations ramp up and restrictions begin to loosen across the country, the new question is: Are we ready? After so much time apart, do we even know how to socialize in person anymore?
We haven't returned to "normal" yet, but it feels like things are beginning to shift: We can almost hear the backyard barbecues; the cubicle-to-cubicle chatter; those awkward, horrible, adorable first date conversations over candlelit dinner. For many, just the thought is anxiety-inducing.
Celeste Headlee, journalist, author of We Need to Talk: How to Have Conversations That Matter, and all-around conversational wiz, says those feelings of trepidation are only natural.
"Social skills are, after all, skills," Headlee says, so it makes sense to feel rusty when they've been out of use.
But, she reminds us, humans were built to socialize. "You have 300,000 years of evolution helping you do this and helping you do it better than any species on the planet."
Read on for Headlee's answers to your social woes, and top tips for getting back out there.
Embrace the awkward.
If you've been working remotely and you're worried about how to approach that first conversation back at the office, chances are you're not the only one feeling it — science tells us we all tend to be more self-conscious than necessary in new social situations. Headlee suggests addressing the elephant in the room right away. "Be honest about it," Headlee says, because "sometimes when you name something, it takes away its power." Acknowledging the awkward with something as simple as, "So this is weird, right?" can clear the air and get everyone moving forward.
When in doubt: Ask questions, start small.
Asking open-ended questions, Headlee says, works on a few different levels: It takes pressure off you while simultaneously giving the other person room to shine and feel some of that conversation-fueled dopamine. And, added bonus, questions give you the opportunity to work on another important social skill — listening! Start small, and in safe, time-limited spaces if you're worried about how you'll do: Maybe practice with a friend or try a brief elevator exchange. And remember, good conversations take time.
Know your limits. It's OK if they've changed.
We all have a finite amount of social energy. And it's important to acknowledge, Headlee says, that the pandemic might have changed that barometer.
"We have been under such a cognitive load over the past year or so that there just may not be the space for two things in one day," she says.
It's also possible the pandemic just revealed the real limits of your social capacity. "Two years ago, you may have just not been aware of how exhausted you were," Headlee says.
But even if you feel ready to jump back into the world with both feet, don't try to take on too much at once. The world's a changed place, and you've probably changed a bit, too. Set realistic boundaries, and pace yourself: that might mean setting a max number of activities for a weekend, having social "off-hours" or limiting how long houseguests can stay. Draw lines that serve you.
Accept what people tell you about themselves.
"I believe" is a fact, Headlee says, while "you believe," is an opinion — in other words, don't assume someone else's point of view, especially when it comes to vaccinations and socializing.
Now more than ever, safety is going to look differently for different people, and it's important to respect the boundaries people create for themselves.
For you, going mask-free indoors post-vaccination might be freeing and joyful, but for your neighbor, it could be panic-inducing. Ask ahead of time if you're unsure about mixed social situations. Don't impose your level of comfort on anyone else, and be honest (or opt out) if you feel unsafe — even when that might feel extra hard when friends and family are ready to spread hugs all around.
While the pandemic has been a source of friction between a lot of people, Headlee maintains our current moment is a great opportunity for unity. "In the end, the past year has been hard for all of us," she says. "And if nothing else, that gives us common ground to find some kind of empathy for each other."
The podcast version of this episode was produced by Clare Marie Schneider. Neil Tevault provided engineering support.
We'd love to hear from you. Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823 or email us at LifeKit@npr.org.
For more Life Kit, subscribe to our newsletter.
In an earlier version of this story and podcast episode, Danielle Abramson was incorrectly called Danielle Abrams.
ANDEE TAGLE, HOST:
This is NPR's LIFE KIT.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Before the pandemic, I felt like I was conditioned by social media to be constantly doing new things with beautiful people in fun places or else I'd get FOMO.
TAGLE: We've been living in a pandemic world for over a year. And for better or worse, many of us are used to our new routines.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Don't get me wrong, I miss seeing people without the fear of contracting a disease. But I truly enjoy that the best option for myself and my community is to order delivery and binge watch garbage TV.
TAGLE: But as vaccinations ramp up and restrictions begin to loosen across the country, the new question is, are we ready? After so much time apart, do we even know how to be with other people anymore?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I can't be bothered to wear a bra or pants. I'm going to miss that luxury. My workplace is not ready for how feral I've become.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: The idea of being able to socialize again is very exciting to me. I miss being in packed stadiums for concerts and sporting events, complaining about long lines with other patrons and partying with a fellow sports fan.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I am someone who is very social. I went into an office for my entire career and love interacting with people. With the onset of the pandemic and the idea of quarantining, I was nervous. Could I help others and lead a team in leggings? The answer is yes. And honestly, I was shocked.
MICHELLE: I can hear the long time, no see comments. And the how are you prompt? I might just beg people not to ask me anything related to my current state of mind.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Being home with my family alongside my career is incredible.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: When humans are able to laugh and bump into each other and argue and share, we grow.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: And I'm hopeful that we as a society can learn from this and not run back into an office 40-plus hours a week.
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TAGLE: I'm Andee Tagle, one of the producers of this show. And this episode, we're talking about, well, talking...
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TAGLE: ...Talking in person, that is, you know, socializing, getting back out there. And we know we haven't fully returned to, quote, unquote, "normal" yet. We might not ever get there. But it feels like things are beginning to shift, right? We can almost hear the backyard barbecues, the cubicle-to-cubicle chatter, those awkward, horrible, adorable first-date conversations over a candlelight dinner. And if this small sample of listeners is any indication, we're all feeling pretty mixed up about that - or, I should say, almost all of us.
CELESTE HEADLEE, BYLINE: Oh, yeah. I'm ready.
TAGLE: That's Celeste Headlee, fellow LIFE KIT host, journalist, public speaker and absolute conversational expert. Seriously, she literally wrote the book on the topic. It's called "We Need To Talk: How To have Conversations That Matter." In This Episode of LIFE KIT, Celeste is here to answer your questions and calm your nerves about post-quarantine socializing. Don't worry, we're all in this together.
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TAGLE: For a lot of people, myself included, we've only meaningfully interacted in person with the same handful of people for over a year now. And soon, that's all going to change. And I feel like that leaves us all up for a lot of vulnerability and self-consciousness. You know, how do we do this? How does this work again? How can we manage those feelings?
HEADLEE: It's not crazy to be anxious about this. It makes perfect sense. It's logical. Social skills are, after all, skills. You'd feel nervous if you spent two years not being on a bicycle. You'd have a little bit of trepidation when you got back on your bike - right? - or going swimming or anything like that. Well, it's the same thing with social skills. So it's understandable if you're feeling like, God, do I remember how to do this? On the other hand - (laughter). On the other hand, you were not evolved specifically to ride a bicycle. You have 300,000 years of evolution helping you do this and helping you do it better than any species on the planet.
TAGLE: Oh, I love that. Thank you. We're evolutionarily prepared for this. I appreciate that.
TAGLE: Along similar lines, small talk. For a lot of people, chit-chat was super anxiety-inducing even before the onslaught of a year-long pandemic. But now, well, here's what just one listener, Michelle (ph), had to say.
MICHELLE: What makes me most stressed is going back to the office and having that first, like, water cooler chat. I hope everyone is just as awkward as I am/will definitely be. Maybe then we'll all laugh at ourselves together.
TAGLE: Oh, Celeste, I really feel this one. Is there a painless way back to our social lives and our social selves? I mean, what are some ways that we can start exercising all of these atrophied social muscles when it comes to these quick interactions we'll be having more of?
HEADLEE: First, let me just say, I can assure you, everyone's also feeling this or at least understands it. Scientifically and clinically, we know that they are. Scientists have studied this. And the one thing we know for sure is that everyone thinks they're a little bit socially awkward. In fact, that's what gets in the way of us feeling all the great emotional and mental benefits of conversation sometimes because we get so wrapped up in our own fears about how we're coming off that it blocks us from getting all that great biofeedback that actually lifts your mood and makes your brain work better. So that's tip No. 1 is that, be honest about it. Sometimes when you name something, it takes away its power. So as you go to the water - I don't know. I haven't seen a water cooler at a workplace for a while.
HEADLEE: But whatever the version is of that (laughter) in your workplace and someone says, how are you doing? And you can say, this is weird, right? You can just sort of acknowledge it. And that might lead you directly to what that next question is. The second tip is exactly what I just said, which is use questions. So you can use your questions about someone else to relieve the pressure off yourself. And frankly, this works on a number of levels. Not only will it make you feel more comfortable, but we also know scientifically that allowing other people the chance to talk about themselves, what they think, what they like, what they've been doing, that gives them a shot of dopamine and makes them feel super excited and happy. So they're going to walk away thinking you're a fantastic conversationalist when all you've done is asked questions.
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TAGLE: Got it. So simple. So obviously, Celeste, like we've been talking about, the pandemic has made socializing harder generally. But it's also shifted social expectations in really interesting ways and, in some cases, for the better. For example, we have a listener, Danielle (ph), and she wrote into us talking about how the pandemic has granted her personal time and more personal space. Here she is.
DANIELLE: I'm anxious about the fact that prior to the pandemic, everyone had the expectation of being available all the time. And then one of the silver linings of the pandemic was sort of allowing for more grace time, that you didn't have to be available to everybody at every minute, that you could take a day or two to respond to an email or a text or didn't have to just constantly answer to people. And I feel that as the world opens back up that we will have to lose that kind of time that we allow ourselves, that we used to have, that we no longer do.
TAGLE: I think this fears she's talking about - you know, always having to be available, losing flexibility - resonate with a lot of people. Celeste, how can we hold onto some of this new social space that the pandemic has given us?
HEADLEE: So I want people, when you're considering this question - and it's a really good one, Danielle - to think about how much social energy do I have? Because the fact of the matter is is that human beings only have a certain amount of social energy. And you have to ask yourself, how much do I have before I become a monster? One of my friends says she has this rule in her house that people - houseguests can only stay a maximum of, like, seven days because she says after that, I become a monster. I don't take it personally. This is just her rule. And it relieves the pressure of making this a comment on our friendship.
Well, I want people to do the same thing. Make rules for yourselves. What are your boundaries? What are your opening times and your closing times for social energy? And if somebody calls you at 9:30 and you just absolutely can't take it, if you've already created that rule for yourself of I don't take phone calls after 8 p.m., you don't have to get your emotions into it. You hopefully don't have to feel guilty about it. You just know these are your limits.
TAGLE: Love that. I love that. Yeah. I mean, I just keep thinking about all these little things that we have to relearn. My partner and I, we made plans for a hike with friends one Saturday morning. And then another friend of mine called and wanted to get together for a picnic on that same day. And so I told her, oh, you know, sorry. We already have that day marked for a hike. And she said to me, oh, well, are you going to be out the whole day? Couldn't we just meet up afterwards? And I was like, oh, yeah. I guess we could. I had legitimately forgotten that making more than one plan in a day was even an option. And then we did - you know, we did the two things, just two things. And I was exhausted.
TAGLE: A year ago, two years ago, it wouldn't - you know, I could do thing to thing to thing to thing. And that was normal. It's just so interesting how those things change.
HEADLEE: And yet, let me just push back on that a little bit, because two years ago, you may have just not been aware of how exhausted you were. I actually think it's healthy that you're noticing how tiring social contact can be because as much as I want people to have lots of social contact, as healthy as that is for you, it also is ridiculous to ignore the fact that it's cognitively demanding. And we have been under such a cognitive load over the past year...
HEADLEE: ...That there just may not be the space for two things in one day. Many of the benefits of conversation also come from the difficulty of it. There's one study at least that shows that if you have even a 10-minute conversation about nothing - sports, weather, whatever, your pets - after you're finished with that, you'll end up performing better on a whole variety of cognitive tests. Your IQ will basically rise.
HEADLEE: And the reason for that is because conversations are hard. And so it is no surprise to me at all if some people decide I've only got enough in me for one a day right now. That's all I've got.
TAGLE: Know your limits. Got it. So something we definitely have to address is vaccinations and vaccination status because it's an uncomfortable topic for a lot of people for a lot of different reasons. You know, we heard from listeners who weren't yet vaccinated being pressured by vaccinated friends to hang out, for example. We heard stories about couples and families who broke up because they felt differently about getting vaccinated. And then we heard from a listener named Aubrey (ph), who chose to conceal his vaccination status.
AUBREY: I am not yet ready to hang out to the extent that I've hidden my vaccination status from friends to avoid having to do things with them. Before the pandemic, I struggled with mild anxiety, but not to the extent I'm now gripped by it. I took my precautions extremely seriously. And now even the thought of a post-pandemic, maskless (ph) trip to a store spikes my anxiety. I started seeing a therapist to address this. And I'm hopeful that as things start opening up, I can take bigger risks to grow more comfortable doing things that were completely normal for me before the pandemic.
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TAGLE: So Celeste, obviously, Aubrey's choice was unique to their situation. But it does kind of bring to light this very new social issue that we have to deal with now. If there's a mismatch of comfort levels or when we're unsure about how another person in our sphere might feel, how do we navigate that?
HEADLEE: You know, one of the hallmarks of a healthy conversation is that the people involved accept each other's truths. In other words, you know, there's an old saying - I think is a fact, you think is an opinion, right? So what we have to do is believe what other people tell us about themselves. So if I say to someone, I'm not comfortable with that and they're pushing back on it or telling me I shouldn't feel that way, that in and of itself is kind of a yellow flag. That's a warning here. And you can say that to the other person and say, hey, listen - no amount of logic is - at this point is going to change the way I'm feeling about this. And it upsets me that you're finding this hard to accept. Let's - let me ask you why you're finding it hard to accept that I feel uncomfortable. It should not be a reflection on my character if I don't feel comfortable going to lunch with you. And it shouldn't be a reflection on your character if you do feel comfortable.
TAGLE: Along similar lines, while we're on the topic of hard conversations, a lot of people wrote in to us about varying degrees of discomfort and distrust. This distrust was mostly about health and safety concerns. Like you were saying, like, this just doesn't make me feel comfortable. But for others, it was deeper than that. It was a social distrust or a resentment even. We heard from a listener named Ashley (ph).
ASHLEY: I can't unsee all the crap I've seen people do over the past year. Like, I saw you post photos on Instagram of your very unessential multiple flights and holiday gatherings. And I know you've attended, like, four weddings in the past year. I get that I may have a snobbish sense of self-righteousness here. But I've only insisted on doing everything I can to keep myself and my loved ones safe. I can't say they've done the same for me.
HEADLEE: This is something that is not only true about vaccinations and COVID-19. It's also true about the very highly politically volatile environment that we're living in. People will have taken actions over the past couple of years, maybe even voted for someone that you find absolutely abhorrent. And you have to let it go. And I know this is hard. I realize that. But at the same time, you never can look towards your own self-righteousness and the morality of your own opinions and say, I'm allowed to punish this other person because they didn't make the same choices I did.
TAGLE: You wouldn't advise even, you know, addressing these concerns?
HEADLEE: To what end? What's your goal in that conversation? The time to bring up those concerns is when they're on a plane to visit you or when they are - want to come over and see your immunocompromised relative or child. That's when you bring up that conversation, when the outcome has impact.
TAGLE: Right. Right.
HEADLEE: But to just bring it up as sort of a I had this problem with the decision you made in the past that I don't agree with philosophically, that's a lot more difficult. I would say let it go.
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TAGLE: OK. Celeste, please, recap for us. If we're getting back out there and we're feeling unsure or anxious, what are your top tips for keeping cool in a social situation?
HEADLEE: So the first thing is to acknowledge the elephant in the room and just say, wow, this is weird, and I feel awkward. No. 2 is to ask questions. You have 300,00 years of evolution behind you. You are designed to do this. You are designed to do this better than almost any other species. So you know what? You got this. You know how to do it. And the other thing is is to accept what people tell you about themselves. So here's the thing - in the end, we are all human beings. In the end, life is really difficult. And in the end, the past year has been hard for all of us. And if nothing else, that gives us common ground to find some kind of empathy for each other.
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TAGLE: Special thanks to all the listeners that shared their thoughts with us, Michelle Kinkaid (ph), Sophia Hu (ph), Courtney Rose Swearingen (ph), Aubrey Mackenzie (ph), Zack Root (ph), Danielle Abramson and one listener, Ashley, who wanted to go by her first name only for privacy purposes. Thanks so much for reaching out. Make sure to let us know how it goes when you get back out there.
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TAGLE: For more NPR LIFE KIT, check out our other episodes. I hosted one on how to move on a budget. And we've got lots more on everything from personal finance to parenting to health. You can find those at npr.org/lifekit. And now, as always, a completely random tip.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Hello, Andee. This is your mother with a random tip. When I meditate and try to think of nothing at all, random thoughts always seem to distract me. If I acknowledge the random thought and freeze it, I can easily imagine swiping up this distraction just like I would do with my phone when I want to clear an app. And this allows me to refocus quickly. Happy meditating. Hope this helps.
TAGLE: Thanks, Mom. If you've got a good tip, leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823. Or email us a voice memo at email@example.com. This episode was produced by Clare Marie Schneider. Meghan Keane is our managing producer. Clare Lombardo and Beck Harlan are our digital editors. Beth Donovan is our senior editor. I'm Andee Tagle. Thanks for listening.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.