We Are All Socially Awkward Now

Kate Murphy, a reporter at the New York Times, wrote an interesting story last month: We’re All Socially Awkward Now.

Murphy writes the following:

Research on prisoners, hermits, soldiers, astronauts, polar explorers, and others who have spent extended periods in isolation indicates social skills are like muscles that atrophy from lack of use. People separated from society — by circumstance or by choice — report feeling more socially anxious, impulsive, awkward, and intolerant when they return to normal life.

Psychologists and neuroscientists say something similar is happening to all of us now, thanks to the pandemic. We are subtly but inexorably losing our facility and agility in social situations — whether we are aware of it or not. The signs are everywhere: people oversharing on Zoom, overreacting to or misconstruing one another’s behavior, longing for but then not really enjoying contact with others.

Stephanie Cacioppo, the director of the Brain Dynamics Laboratory at the University of Chicago, notes that when we are cut off from others, our brains interpret it as a mortal threat. Feeling lonely or isolated is as much a biological signal as hunger or thirst. And just like not eating when you’re starved or not drinking when you’re dehydrated, failing to interact with others when you are lonely leads to negative cognitive, emotional, and physiological effects.

Even if you are part of a pandemic pod, such as family, you can still feel lonely since you may not be getting those casual interactions that you once were, such as running into people we know at the gym or the office.

When isolated, our brains go into survival mode, which dampens our ability to recognize and appropriately respond to the subtleties and complexities inherent in social situations. Instead, we become hypervigilant and oversensitive – ready for a fight. We start to feel self-conscious and avoid social gatherings.

Craig Haney, a psychology professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who studies the effects of isolation on inmates, notes, “People feeling uncomfortable with other people is part of what happens when denied the normal social contact that we so much depend on.”

A key way to manage this sense of isolation is to stay in communication with people, by whatever means possible.

And once things start to return to a sense of normalcy, we need to have patience, both with ourselves and others.

Just like getting back into an exercise routine, we need to proceed slowly and with caution, but eventually, we can get to where we were before.

I may be in the minority, but I have not felt any side effects of the pandemic. I have been blessed to have my family around me. I was fortunate to have been able to teach this summer, even if it was over Zoom, and this semester I am teaching all my classes in-person to a wonderful group of students. I guess that gives me all the social contact I needed, which typically is not a lot.

However, as Dr. Cacioppo notes, even the most introverted among us are wired to crave company. It’s an evolutionary imperative because there’s historically been safety in numbers. Loners had a tough time slaying woolly mammoths and fending off enemy attacks.

It’s good to know that even introverts like me need social interaction, so I will be sure to keep lines of communication open among friends and family.

In the meantime, here’s to social awkwardness!

*image from queer-voices

55 thoughts on “We Are All Socially Awkward Now

  1. Maybe this helps to explain why shootings and murders have risen so dramatically in some of our cities. I agree that we need to socialize more and keep adept at it. I’m hoping restrictions will ease substantially after the election, and we can all get back to being more human again.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Interesting perspective about social awkwardness being part of the blame for the increased violence; it seems to have some merit. I don’t see much changing until there is a safe and effective vaccine that is widely available.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I can’t say I have side effects from
    The pandemic but I can say adaptation is what I am aiming for. Wear a mask? Absolutely it’s the best defense we have now. Stay 6 feet apart! Sure! I like my personal space anyway! If I can make changes that help keep me safe and continue with my life then I will!!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I don’t think I fit the profile. I miss being in the company of others because so many of my normal pre-COVID activities involved being around socialization.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Most days, I feel the same, but there have been times when I felt depressed. That is totally out of character for me.


  4. Well, I can’t argue with the science from the experts, but I think this impacts those of us trying to avoid the virus less than the people who have contracted it and become hospitalized. We still have every means to be social, although it does not include being physically close. We have phones, email, Zoom/Skype, blogs, and all the others. Patients are cut off from family and friends and rarely well enough to engage in other activities to shore up the feeling of being connected. I do believe that as we return to whatever may be our new normal, patience with ourselves and others will be critical until we can sharpen our social skills again. Great information delivered beautifully, Jim!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. thanks, Brad. And great point. I think the big picture is to be grateful for your health, and then once things start to return a little bit closer to normal, we can focus more on the socialization aspect.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. this all makes so much sense and like you, I am an introvert who loves people, and love interacting, but also need my alone time to recharge, but c’mon corona, this is a bit much – it’s going to take some practice. good thing I get to start with my kinder.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. ‘I may be in the minority, but I have not felt any side effects of the pandemic.’

    I’m in the same minority; nothing changed for me save for wearing a mask when I go to a store or enter a building at work (I never stopped working, btw).

    I was already awkward and rather isolated, having no real close friends of my own. I only interact with co-workers, my wife’s friends, and once in a while a neighbor, too.

    It makes sense that it’s a skill that atrophies if not used, but I was never very good at casual interactions to begin with.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. It’s like you said about handwriting: we lose the skills if we don’t use them. There is going to be a huge need for relearning when this is all finally over, along with a great deal of treatment for mental health issues deriving from enforced isolation.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I don’t think I’ll ever change even once this stupid lockdowns and social distancing is over but everything written in the post make sense. Not to mention the lack of physical contact for those who lives alone… ugh the loneliness and mental stress… yes, I can see myself in them if I was alone.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think there’s a difference between being alone and being lonely. Some people may like to be alone, as long as they have some contact with others. lonely is a bit tougher…

      Liked by 2 people

      1. True. There are times when I want to be alone too for months if possible, but I don’t think I’ll be able to handle it when I can’t even shake a stranger’s hand because I need to keep my distance, because that’s when loneliness kick in for me.

        Liked by 1 person

  9. This is an interesting post as I’ve certainly noticed myself being less sociable.

    I’m not naturally one who wants to go out, so lockdown/restrictions have been the perfect excuse not to put myself out there.

    I’m quite happy at the moment to keep in my small family bubbles. It’s going to take a bit of effort to make myself open when things return to normal.

    Liked by 1 person

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