By this phase of the pandemic, most of us have started to join society again and have significantly increased our time with people, in person. And though the joy of doing these regular activities from the “before times” are heightened, I can’t be the only one who is feeling this exhausted.
Much of my exhaustion is coming from the fact that many of my interactions with people in real life can feel pretty awkward. I got used to having a screen between me and the world, and it takes a lot more energy than I imagined, now that we are beginning to take them down.
After missing out on so much the past year, the world is full of so much possibility again. Every day is a chance for an incredible reunion with friends and family. But can every interaction with people really be that amazing? And with life already so busy, how the hell are we managing to add in so many more activities? Most importantly, what is the appropriate amount of naps to take before we muster enough energy to get back out there again? It’s possible that we are setting ourselves up to be slightly disappointed.
When we manage to find clothes that fit us, transport ourselves to the location, and then see the people, what the heck are we going to talk about? I used to consider myself quite the conversationalist, but these days I can’t seem to put a coherent string of words together. I am feeling rusty at small talk and have already asked a few too many awkward questions of people I have not seen in awhile.
Like, is “Do you know anyone who got COVID?” really an appropriate BBQ question?
When people ask how you are, should you mention those moments when you were really not okay? Do other people really want to know if we lost a loved one recently or if our work was decimated by the pandemic? It’s as if we are all back at the party, which may look a lot like the one we held two years ago, but we’re all so different.
After a year of incredibly intense collective experiences and our own individual traumas, polite comments about the weather are just not going to cut it anymore.
I only invested my time and took the risk to see a small group of people in person. And, because I was mostly not hanging with friends in person, I was able to devote more social time to friends and family who are not physically close, using virtual and video platforms. Now that life as we used to know it is returning, I’m torn. Who am I supposed to be reaching out to to hang out with? And will those relationships with friends from afar— built up through the pandemic—change now that they will be busy with friends they live close to again?
With time as a limited resource we are having to again make some decisions of who we want to invest our time and energy to see in-person. And with so many changes this past year we’ve had a strange reshuffling of priorities and proximity. People have moved, disappeared, and popped back up into our lives literally out of nowhere.
And this return to busyness reminds me of the different kind of loneliness that used to creep into my life before the pandemic. Those isolating moments that can be exacerbated by being in a city surrounded by people, yet feeling very much alone. At least during the pandemic, we knew that no one was doing anything fun, but now those feelings of missing out or wondering who exactly our friends are has returned. Somehow our loneliness is more pronounced when we think we are alone in experiencing it.
We all need to give ourselves a break for being out of shape for socializing. But maybe not knowing how to make small talk anymore is actually an opportunity. It is exhausting to BS with people when heavier topics are on your mind. We tend to want to gloss over the important things because it feels too awkward to talk about them. Real shit is awkward, but talking about it with another human can be a huge relief.
Perhaps the cousin you have not seen in two years really doesn’t care about the new chairs you recently bought for your front porch. But maybe they can relate to your struggles with your job. Perhaps your co-worker is going through a divorce no one knows about, or your friends are being weird because they are worried about the new variant. We never really know what is going on with another individual, but after this year, we can safely assume that the person in front of us—no matter who they are—had a rough time at some point. It is not really about us being able to always say the right things in social situations, but more about if we are able to show up for our people and listen.
Unfortunately no amount of in-person partying can erase the intensity of the last year-and-a-half, and we must figure out how to ask the awkward questions and to have the real conversations. There is a chance that our shared struggles could, in fact, lead to real, authentic connections with others. And though it may be hard to begin these conversations, just know that, yes, we are all feeling just as awkward as you are.