COVID-19 Made Us Socially Awkward

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Photo: Ashley Gilbertson/VII Photo

As the school year begins amid a global pandemic, many are concerned about the negative impact that virtual or socially distanced learning may have on children’s developing social skills.

But what about grown-ups? It seems adults deprived of consistent and varied peer contact can get just as clumsy at social interactions as inexperienced kids.

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, or misconstruing one another’s behavior, longing for but then not really enjoying contact with others.

It’s an odd social malaise that can easily become entrenched if we don’t recognize why it’s happening and take steps to minimize its effects.

“The first thing to understand is that there are biological reasons for this,” said Stephanie Cacioppo, the director of the Brain Dynamics Laboratory at the University of Chicago. “It’s not a pathology or mental disorder.”

Even the most introverted among us, she said, 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.

So 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, which Dr. Cacioppo said many of us are likely experiencing now.

Even if you are ensconced in a pandemic pod with a romantic partner or family members, you can still feel lonely — often camouflaged as sadness, irritability, anger, and lethargy — because you’re not getting the full range of human interactions that you need, almost like not eating a balanced diet. We underestimate how much we benefit from casual camaraderie at the office, gym, choir practice, or art class, not to mention spontaneous exchanges with strangers.

Many of us have not met anyone new in months.

“This daily interacting with individuals out in the world gives you a sense of belonging and security that comes from feeling you are part of, or have access to, a wider community and network,” said Stefan Hofmann, a professor of psychology at Boston University. “Social isolation slashes that network.”

The privation sends our brains 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. Layer on top of that a seemingly capricious virus and we’re all tightly coiled for fight or flight.

You get a sidelong glance and immediately think the other person dislikes you. A confusing comment is interpreted as an insult. At the same time, you feel more self-conscious, fearing any misstepswill put you further at risk.As a result, social situations, even a friendly phone call, become something to avoid. People start to withdraw, rationalizing they are too tired, didn’t like the person much to begin with or there’s something they’d rather watch on Netflix.

It’s a phenomenon that the British physician Beth Healey knows all too well. She spent a year at a remote outpost in Antarctica as part of a team doing research for the European Space Agency.

“We had quite a lot of training before we went about how returning home can be difficult,” she said. “You kind of laugh it off, thinking it won’t happen to you.”

But sure enough, when Dr. Healey re-entered civilization in early 2016, she said she felt uneasy. “One of my good friends met me in New Zealand and I could feel myself hiding behind her a little bit when checking in at the hotel,” she said. “Normally I’d have been happy to take the lead but I was hoping they would speak to her.”

For months, she was nervous getting on a bus and overwhelmed going to the supermarket. “It was really strange and feels similar to what we’re seeing now after the isolation” because of the coronavirus, she said. “But, in a way, it was easier coming out of Antarctica into the world because nobody else felt the same way and now everyone is being a bit weird.”

Some of her fellow crew members had such a hard time readjusting that they immediately signed up to go back to Antarctica. The same thing often happens to soldiers returning from long deployments and also prisoners released after years in solitary confinement. Even if they come home to supportive families, within days or weeks, they want to go back.

“I don’t want to make an equivalence between prisoners in solitary confinement and what all of us are going through now but there are definite similarities,” said Craig Haney, a psychology professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who studies the effects of isolation on inmates. “People feeling uncomfortable with other people is part of what happens when denied the normal social contact that we so much depend on.”

In every interaction, you have to make countless intuitive judgments — interpreting words, gestures, and expressions and reacting appropriately. You’ve also got to get the timing and pacing right, as well as titrate how much to share and with whom. Social interplay is one of the most complicated things we ask our brains to do. In normal circumstances, we get a lot of practice, so it becomes somewhat seamless. You don’t think about it. But when you have fewer opportunities to practice, you get off your game. The surreal and clunky quality of virtual or masked interactions just makes matters worse.

Isolation experts say it’s a slippery slope and advise taking steps to keep your social skills as nimble as possible during this unsocial time. Dr. Haney said inmates who rebound after solitary confinement are the ones who realized their isolation was a serious threat to their sense of self and security and took every opportunity to reach out to other people.

“The guys who survive best are the ones who write letters and maintain visitation and who maintain communication with other people, even if it’s just through the walls of a cell block,” he said. “It’s the ones who withdraw deeply in and eschew contact with others who do the worst.”

That’s why it’s important to block out time every day to connect with others, whether through a socially distanced chat, telephone call, or, at the very least, a thoughtful text.

And as we all gradually re-emerge from our confinement and widen our social circles, don’t expect anyone or anything to be the same. Dr. Healey said the crew members from her polar expedition who had the greatest difficulty reintegrating were the ones who expected to resume jobs and relationships exactly where they left off. People inevitably change over time and certainly after something significant, like a pandemic, upends their lives and shakes their confidence in what they thought they knew. Values shift. Personalities alter. None of us are the same.

So give yourself and everyone else a break. Have patience for your own and other people’s weirdness.

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