There’s a new awkwardness emerging as we negotiate life in the new normal. Our comfort levels in socialising have shifted from what’s safe to what’s not. Be awkward, not rude is the new social signpost. There’s a potential weirdness we experience when we meet people. Social distancing has left everyone feeling socially awkward. 

The nuances of how we engage with people has changed. The virus is making us all socially awkward. Experts say, there’s “Insinuation anxiety” while going out. To go out in the next few months while the pandemic rages on is going to be the toughest challenge. 

In India, the festival season is upon us and so is the virus. Wondering if your social skills have turned rusty and you’ve turned into a recluse after months of staying at home? This would be a good time to work on it.

These days, every social interaction is fraught with a million unspoken tensions. Should we meet or stay at home? Should we hug our soulmates or say a distant hello. Should we chat face to face, masked for 20 minutes or more. Or should we throw caution to the winds as there is too much social fatigue of the virus. Experts warn, that is the most dangerous thing to do. Remember that awkward pandemic moment when a stranger gets too close to you without a mask on; or when you have to turn down an invitation to a friend’s birthday party.

Even the social awkwardness of meeting someone masked is intense, as there’s a direct correlation between wearing a mask and talking to someone and how it creates instant distrust and barriers. There’s also an insinuation of the other person’s hygiene and safety. This festive season, everyday people will weigh the immediate social cost of an invitation with the possibility of exposing themselves or others to a disease. 

This is not the time to go easy. Social isolation has made people lethargic. John Vincent, a clinical psychologist at the University of Houston warns against lethargy. “People start getting lethargic when they don’t have positive inputs into their small worlds,” he says. 

In 1972, French adventurer and scientist Michel Siffre famously shut himself in a cave in Texas for more than six months — what still clocks in as one of the longest self-isolation experiments in history. Meticulously documenting the effects on his mind over those 205 days, Siffre wrote that he could “barely string thoughts” together after a couple months. By the five-month mark, he was reportedly so desperate for company that he tried  to befriend a mouse.

A 2019 study of more than 11,000 people taking part in ELSA found that men who reported higher-than-average social isolation and women who reported increasing social isolation both experienced above-average decline in memory function within two years of being surveyed.

We need to have a social blueprint ready to navigate our social lives around festival season. It’s impossible to avoid people, so you sometimes have to be the one to keep your distance. You need to have your own coping mechanisms. Everyone is wired to crave good stimulating company. When we go out, we get many chances of connecting with new people. 

With months of social isolation and distancing, the world is no longer the same. Everyone is feeling socially anxious. 

The pandemic has changed mindsets and behaviours. People aren’t feeling in control anymore. Dr Steven Taylor, author of The Psychology of Pandemic writes, “It’s people’s behaviour that determines whether or not a virus will spread.” 

Mumbai-based psychiatrist Dr Sagar Mundada says, “I encourage people to be gentle and kind with themselves throughout this time. Keep it as simple as you can and don’t overwhelm yourself with anything new. Coming out of isolation and going into social situations is risky. Do it cautiously and gently.” 

There’s also a fatigue of socially distanced chat, telephone call or, that weird text. There’s a lot of awkwardness as people try to figure out how to greet someone, how to welcome someone, or even how to greet their daughter’s friend. Such uncertainty can affect relationships.

5 Ways to Handle Social Awkwardness 

1. Have a plan before going to awkward social situations: Even people who don’t generally have social anxiety are finding it disorienting to enter their social life after months of living like a hermit. Give yourself space to walk into whatever emotion you are feeling. It is normal. Asking your friends to respect the recommended distance of at least six feet isn’t just awkward. It’s an uncomfortable experience. Most people don’t want to come off as rude.

2. Talk about it: Your friend might be super-excited about seeing you, but you might have reservations, talk about it. If you are feeling anxious about socialising with a particular person, or socialising in general, reach out.

3. Know your boundaries: Keep to your comfort zone, keep your social engagements short and limited. Slowly, increase your confidence.

4. House party with strict rules: When you invite people home, make the rules clear. Nicely. Don’t take chances and let social distancing slide.

5. You may be a mask-wearing superhero but ignore the jokes. If you follow  social-distancing strictly, rule-breakers might joke about you. Ignore their bullish behaviour.