An article in the New York Times, “We are all socially awkward now“, on September 1, 2020 was forwarded to me by five people. The writer, Kate Murphy, that talked about how social skills are like muscles, and if not worked out they will atrophy. Since the pandemic quarantine began I have been writing, tweeting, and speaking about “Social Tightening While Social Distancing”. (I wrote this blog post on March 15, 2020).
“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.”
The article was a wake up call for people to realize that humans were not designed to be locked away alone. We are social animals and much of our interaction with each other is learned and can be forgotten. I worry about those who do not work on cultivating their human connections during this time of COVID-19. Those who were not socially awkward before might find themselves not as engaged with friends, family, and co-workers a year from now.
Being home with your family is not enough. For many people a majority of their day, and thus their human connections, are spent when they went to work. While it is true that many have worked from home (and do so well) for many years, others are tied to the ties to their herd. Suddenly being home and having to watch others through Zoom or Microsoft Teams is not enough.
My concerns are around the people who are feeling sad and disconnected during this time. Previous to the pandemic there were those who felt lonely and on the outside of the group. This just adds to it. People need people and studies are showing mental health issues around loneliness are at all time highs.
Additionally, people are having very different experiences during these trying times. Some are having family issues and are not getting along at home with those under the same roof. Others are out of work and facing huge financial burdens. Many have had life events like weddings and graduations cancelled. There is little understanding from those who only had to move home to work remotely toward those facing major hardships. I have talked to several people facing challenges (myself included) who feel lost in a world of news reports about how productive people are working from home.
As we eventually move back to an open world with social and business gatherings, people will need a “booster shot” of social skills. Some things will have changed, but people will still long to feel connected and accepted. When the barriers of distancing and masks disappear, socially awkward feelings will become more obvious.
It is not too early to start reconnecting now with co-workers, clients, prospects, vendors, friends, and others in your community. While implementing social distancing has been important to protecting health, we cannot forget to practice social tightening. There are many things you can do on a consistent basis to keep human connections active. Be proactive and ask questions of people. Discover who needs you the most and be there for them.
We still have a long way to go. The virus is not going away anytime soon. But do not let this pandemic make you socially awkward. Fight the good fight and make connecting with people a priority.
Thom Singer is a keynote speaker and master of ceremonies / EmCee for in-person and virtual events. He is also an executive search consultant working to help companies find the right people to bring success to their teams.