Our Social Muscles Have Broken Down. Here’s How To Build Them Back Up

Photographed by Jessica Xie.
Last Saturday I got on a train for the first time this year. I was with one dear friend, visiting another dear friend who has left the city during the pandemic. As we sat adjacent to each other in the carriage, talking in person (!), I could feel the physical effort I was putting into communicating. The announcements from the train were loud and jarring, the sounds of other groups of people chatting almost alien in how distracting they were. I had to focus constantly on what my friend was saying as our masks and the distance between us made hearing harder, while the lack of non-verbal cues made our conversation feel stilted. I was so excited to see my friends but before we had even reached our destination, I could feel how deeply out of practice I was. It was exhausting.
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If you’ve started to socialise again since England's lockdown partially lifted in April, you’ve probably felt a similar mix of excitement, anxiety, awkwardness and exhaustion. It's hardly surprising – after all, our social skills have been barely used for over a year. Fanny Lalot is a research associate at the University of Kent School of Psychology and has been researching social cohesion in the UK during COVID-19. She says that this disuse has had a clear impact.
"In the short term, our social skills will probably feel a bit rusty!" she tells R29. "Social interactions are marked by a number of social rules, or norms, that we all know and follow to an extent: how we greet people, how we engage a conversation, how we dress for specific work or leisure events, etc." In lockdown, all of this has radically changed, from the way we dress to the way we communicate through waves and shouts of "You're muted!" on Zoom. Going back to things 'as they were before' will feel strange, then, as we re-accustom ourselves to those old social rules.
"However," Fanny reassures me, "our social skills are not gone. They just need to be exercised again.”
But just like you shouldn't attempt a marathon when you haven't run for a year, building your social muscles back up can't be done in one exhausting push. To get them back to where you want them to be, it’s important to understand what exactly is making socialising harder before you learn to negotiate those boundaries. It’s not just that we’re out of practice (although that is a major factor); the physical impacts of isolation and of COVID-safe communication will make it harder, too.
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There is some evidence to suggest that the last year has impacted our brains negatively: prolonged isolation is thought to affect cognitive function, specifically memory and verbal recall. In other words, our ability to remember phrases or moments is linked to how much interactive stimulation we get – and as social creatures, we need plenty of interactive stimulation to keep our brains in good order. So if you're talking to someone and find that words escape you, it's likely down to lack of regular conversation.
Simultaneously, there are now physical barriers to socialising, namely masks and distance. As Chris Segrin, a professor of communication at the University of Arizona, told The Cut, there are physiological reasons why socialising is currently so tiring. "When you communicate at a distance, you have to use a lot more wind to talk… We have to project a lot more deliberately, and that’s exhausting for a long period of time." Not only do masks muffle our speech – they cover a wealth of non-verbal cues, too. A half-covered face is half as expressive.
Then there are the psychological barriers. The pandemic has taught us not only to avoid people but to be wary of them. "Everyone you would pass by posed a potential risk of contamination, we learned, and you needed to stay away (literally, preferably two metres away) from them," Fanny points out. "That has probably created a sense of suspicion or at least of unease in social interactions, which will take some time to disappear."
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This wariness of other people plays into many lingering anxieties. While the rules endeavour to be clear about what kind of interaction is and isn’t legal, psychologists have seen an increase in adults reporting stress over social situations, ranging from not knowing how to bookend an interaction without a handshake or a hug to running out of things to talk about. 
"Some friends and family members may, for one reason or another, be reluctant to meet up, even in small groups," says Gill Hasson, author of Communication: How To Connect With Anyone. "They may feel safer and more confident just meeting one other person at a time. Others still may not want to meet in public places – pubs, cafés and restaurants." The past year has been hard for everyone but it has affected each of us differently. Accommodating each person's boundaries can't be done unless it's explicitly talked about beforehand.
With all these factors in mind, what is the best way to start rebuilding your social muscles?
Like any other muscle group, working it slowly and at regular intervals is going to be the least exhausting and most productive approach.
Fanny's advice is to start simple, with a very small group and plan something to do. "Having an activity or a form of context will help structuring and kickstarting the reunion. It will also give something to talk about, at a time when many of us probably feel like they don’t have much to say."
She believes that the further we get along the post-lockdown roadmap, the easier it will be. "The more it looks like things you would do before, the easier it will be for the old reflexes to kick in. In a nutshell, accept the nervosity to better overcome it, stay natural and let time take its course." With this in mind you can use the relatively slow pace of the easing of lockdown to practise re-familiarising yourself with social situations.
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Fanny also warns against overthinking socialising and emphasises the importance of being open about how strange everything is, especially if you're feeling apprehensive or are struggling. Mentioning how hard it is to communicate through a mask or how weird you feel speaking in person again will acknowledge the elephant in the room. "All of us have been through this [pandemic], and people will be more forgiving than you think if you act or say anything slightly awkward."
The most important thing is to really listen to each other. It's vitally important to respect different people's ideas of risk and not attempt to force anyone into environments or situations they are not yet ready for. "We're each going to have to respect each other’s concerns and limits and negotiate and compromise in order to meet up and socialise in ways that meet each other's [needs]," says Gill. If we don't, it could push people into avoiding socialising entirely – and avoidance can breed more avoidance.
Instead of seeing this as a challenge, we should consider it an opportunity to rediscover our boundaries, embrace what we missed about socialising and learn to listen to each other once again. Kate Murphy is a journalist and author of You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters. She points out to R29 that when it comes to socialising and listening, "there’s nothing like deprivation to make you appreciate what you’ve lost. As a result, you’re seeing a resurrection of the traditions of listening to one another’s stories on front porches and around fire pits." Maintaining and rekindling listening skills even amid social distancing can be a way to make social environments far more engaging than they were before the pandemic. That in turn can help us work through the collective grief, trauma and hope of 2020.
By the time I got home from my afternoon out with my friends, I was exhausted but I was gleeful too. Our relative tiredness and awkwardness meant that our time together was engaged, hopeful, cathartic and joyful. Despite it taking that bit more work, socialising left me feeling far more invigorated than I had in months.
If you're still worried about your ability to socialise, Fanny thinks it is unlikely there has been any long-term impact. Based on her research she believes that most adults will rebound fairly quickly and feel at ease in the company of others again. "Even if the lockdown(s) feel like a very long time, and many people have felt lonely during that time, it’s unlikely that you were ever completely cut from society (as in a Cast Away situation). We have had basic interactions, we have seen other people, talked over the phone, followed the news, etc. So it is unlikely that the situation was severe enough to produce any dire, longer lasting effects."

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