Finally, after more than a year of being locked down in our homes and unable to attend events large and small, life is finally resuming to a degree that actually resembles “normal.” For most of us, this is exciting news, but it can also be met with quite a bit of anxiety and, well, hesitancy, as we begin to attend events again. We’ve been so removed and isolated from our social circles that simply pressing the “play button” on that portion of our lives can be rather daunting.
“For most people, there is definitely going to be an adjustment period to build up enough endurance to be around others, especially for those who have spent most of the time in lockdown alone and are only used to experiencing other humans through a screen,” notes London-based life coach, Michelle Elman. “Pre-pandemic, I don't think many people realized that social interaction required energy because we were so used to it but, as with anything, if you haven't done something for a year, it will seem harder than it was before.”
As with anything, if you haven't done something for a year, it will seem harder than it was before.
Jodi R.R. Smith, owner of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting, in Marblehead, Massachusetts, agrees that social skills are not something that necessarily comes naturally to most—they’re learned behaviors. “Just like any other skill, if social skills are not employed, they rust,” she says. “Just as you would never take a year off from jogging and then wake up to run a marathon, so too you need to start small and increase your stamina for social interactions.”
If you have an upcoming wedding to attend, whether 75 people or 300 are invited, it can be stressful to imagine how you’ll manage once seemingly simple social interactions, such as making small talk, again. The good news: Just like you learned how to socialize when you were a child and as you grew into adulthood, you can acquaint yourself with becoming comfortable in social settings that require you to converse and with people you might not know all that well.
As you assimilate into the new post-pandemic normal, here are some expert tips for making the process easier, more streamlined, and less anxiety-inducing for yourself.
Remember You’re Not Alone
If there’s one silver lining of the experience we’ve all been through in the past year, it’s that we were in it together. No one was unaffected by the pandemic that uprooted life as we once knew it. As such, Sharon Greene, a licensed clinical social worker at Providence Saint John’s Child and Family Development Center in Santa Monica, California, notes that it can be helpful to remind yourself, prior to the event, that everyone is experiencing this transition with you and is more than likely feeling somewhat anxious and socially awkward. “There is something about realizing that this is a universal experience that makes us feel less alone and more connected,” she says.
Take It Slow
Allison Chawla, LMSW, a psychotherapist, spiritual counselor, and certified life coach in New York, recommends keeping your approach to initiating small talk gently and even taking a moment while engaging to feel out comfort levels. “We are going to need to take a slow and steady approach to expose ourselves socially again, and are certainly going to need open lines of communication to confidently express what we are and are not feeling comfortable with,” she says.
Maintain a Comfortable Distance
Small talk with strangers can already be a little awkward, so it’s only natural to not want to get too close with someone you don’t know all that well. But Andrew Selepak, PhD, professor in the department of telecommunication at the University of Florida, emphasizes the importance of a comfortable distance post-pandemic. “Small talk is about making another person feel comfortable, but if you get too close to them, they will back away and try to physically distance themselves,” he says. “Even if you are not worried about being socially distanced, others might.” Let them come to you instead.
Show Interest in Others First
After introducing yourself at a party, Rachel Wagner, licensed corporate etiquette consultant, warns against rambling on about yourself. Instead, she recommends showing a keen interest in who the other person is, what they do, where they’re from, etc. “The easiest way to show interest in others is by asking open-ended questions rather than questions that just require a yes or no response,” she says. “For example, ask questions that begin with who, what, when, where, how or why, or simply say, ‘Tell me a little about you.’”
Give a Compliment
Though it might not feel the most natural way to engage with someone you don’t know, Green points out that complimenting others during the small talk can actually help increase social connection and decrease anxiety. “Complimenting someone does not only make the person you compliment feel good but the positive response that you get back can decrease your feelings of social awkwardness,” she says. “Notice something you genuinely like about the person you are speaking with, whether it is their clothes, smile, or contagious laugh, and tell them.”
Try Not to Take Things Personally
You may encounter some awkward social scenarios, especially if others are feeling more or less reserved than you would anticipate them to be. For example, if you go in for a hug and someone pulls away, it’s best to not take it personally. “No one knows what went on behind closed doors, or who deeply suffered illness and or loss throughout the pandemic,” adds Chawla. “There is going to be a lot of PTSD in many individuals, so not taking it to heart if someone doesn't accept a handshake or hug will be essential for this time.”
Talk About the Quarantine Experience
Everyone has a pandemic story, notes Dr. Selepak. “We all went through the pandemic and the one thing that everyone can talk about is how they got through it and what they did when we were on lockdown,” he says. Consider using the topic as a starting point to break the ice and learn more about an individual. “You can probably find out a lot about them and from there find other topics of conversation,” Dr. Selepak adds.
Be Easy on Yourself
It may take more time for some than others to relearn how to comfortably interact in social settings. If you feel uneasy at first, remember to be kind to yourself. “We all forever hold within our hearts what we have all just gone through,” says Chawla. “Though we were forced to remain apart, we have all been together in this terrible and fearful situation, so let’s find love and gratitude in being able to see each other again, versus forget what has been occurring and go back to complaints and judgments.”
Respect and Encourage Others
If you’re the type who is more comfortable and confident engaging with others at events post-pandemic, Wagner suggests trying to reach out to others at the event who may not seem as comfortable. “The other person will be impressed with your warmth and friendliness and appreciate you for taking the initiative,” she adds.
If All Else Fails, Bring Up the Weather
Talking about the weather never gets old. “No matter the season or the temperature outside, everyone has something to say about the weather,” notes Dr. Selepak. “The weather impacts what we wear and what we do, so if you really want to keep the conversation going, talk about how the weather impacted whatever you are doing at the moment and then you have a shared topic to discuss beyond just the weather but the whole reason you are at an event in the first place.”