A few weeks ago, my wife Lydia and I met another couple — outside, at a distance, masked — at a park halfway between our two Southern California cities. Our friends have a new puppy they wanted to socialize with a known and trusted dog (ours was flattered), but, perhaps more important, each of us desperately wanted to interact with someone other than our spouse. Or so we thought.
After parking our cars, we spread out our picnics six feet apart, ate hastily, and talked briefly about how depressed we’d been lately. We finished eating, walked our dogs to the designated play area and let them politely ignore each other for a while as we tried to encourage them (and, privately, ourselves) to engage socially. When we finally said goodbye and got back in our for the drive home, only an hour had passed. Later that afternoon, our friend texted to tell us how tired she felt; her husband was already asleep on the couch.
A year into the COVID pandemic, as the vaccine continues to roll out, socializing is still dangerous and illegal at worst and precarious and exhausting at best. I never considered myself an extrovert or a particularly gifted conversationalist, but 12 months of near-total isolation have sapped me of whatever social stamina and charm I once possessed. The other day, a barista at the drive-through Starbucks Lydia and I frequent — because there is nothing else to do — cheerfully noted that I was there alone. “Yep,” I said, dumbly. And that was that.
Though it remains difficult to believe, someday we will be able to gather in each other’s houses again. We will once again make unmasked, unharried small talk with cashiers and servers and see our coworkers in person and attend social events both obligatory and optional. But, upon resuming our social lives, how will we ensure that we neither embarrass ourselves completely nor become so exhausted we lapse back into semi-involuntary hermitude? I contacted a number of experts in varying fields seeking both an explanation (Why am I so tired after grunting three sentence fragments at a well-meaning neighbor?) and advice (Is there some sort of breathing exercise I should be doing that would help?). Here’s what they said about how our social isolation impacts different areas of our lives (and our brains).
A small reassurance: There is an actual physiological reason we’re so tired after short, socially distanced interactions with friends. “When you communicate at a distance, you have to use a lot more wind to talk,” says Chris Segrin, a professor of communication at the University of Arizona. “We have to project a lot more deliberately, and that’s exhausting for a long period of time.” With masks, too, we lose roughly half our cues to someone’s meaning; a raised eyebrow can only communicate so much. Add to that the stress inherent to being outdoors and around people (every last one a potential vector of disease), and it’s no wonder a half hour walk can drain you for days.
Like any other skill set, social skills atrophy from disuse, says Segrin. (“That probably explains what you see in people who are behaving awkwardly,” he explains.) The good news is that one’s ability to carry a semi-normal conversation should come back in time, with practice.
In the meantime, it’s essential that we remember we are all stressed, and stressed people are generally thinking mostly about their own stressors. “If you’re focused on what’s upsetting you now, if you’re anxious and stressed out, you have less attention to pay to the other person, and that diminishes how skillfully you’ll interact with them,” says Daniel Goleman, a psychologist and the author of Emotional Intelligence. “If we’re upset and anxious, we’re primed to misinterpret what other people do or say.”
Impossible though it may be, we’d all do well to extend social leniency toward our neighbors, our friends, and — please, I’m sorry — even the oddly curt woman in our drive-through window who simply could not think of what else to say.
Before we lost it completely, office small talk was widely considered a deadening, dumbing force. Discussing commute time, the weather, and nearby lunch options may never have been one’s most enjoyable source of human connection, but it was, perhaps, the most reliable one. Working apart — or with masks, trying not to get too close — means the face-to-face interactions we have with co-workers are somewhat strained. For people working from home, seeing each other’s faces means planned meetings, which means Zoom or something like it.
Where once we thought remote work might improve accessibility, it has, so far, only extended the work day, requiring increased availability from us all. The jokes about sweatpants freedom have long ceased being funny; neither liberating nor effective, the ascendancy of Zoom has instead contributed to collective burnout for many — particularly those tasked with frequent, highly attended meetings. “When you’re on a Zoom with two or three other people, it’s not that different from being with them in person, because you can see everyone and the conversation flows,” says David Deming, economist and professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. “Once you get above five or seven people, it starts to feel like a webinar, and that’s not at all similar to an in-person meeting.”
Even smaller meetings, though, tend to be more tiring than an in-person chat. “There are a lot of things going on neurologically and biologically that make Zoom uniquely exhausting to your system,” says Celeste Headlee, a journalist and the author of We Need to Talk: How to Have Conversations That Matter. One reason is that Zoom only provides the illusion of eye contact — if you’re looking at your camera to seem as though you’re making eye contact with the other attendees, you can’t see them. If you’re looking at them, they can’t look you in the eye. Shifting constantly between the two is cognitively taxing, says Headlee, and denies our brains the benefit we ordinarily receive from face-to-face interaction.
Zoom also tends to freeze, which exacerbates our frustration and cuts the conversational benefit down further. It’s also intrusive, says Headlee. Our backgrounds are also our homes, and in some cases, our schools. “There’s the fear that something could go wrong behind you,” she says. Each of these seemingly minor stressors builds to a cascade of dread that hits us whenever we click “Join Meeting.” Though Zoom may remain the best option we’ve got, meeting organizers would do well to limit the lengths of meetings and stop trying to make them fun.
A Humble Alternative
There exists no technology that perfectly mimics the fullness, the richness, or even the weirdness of our pre-COVID social lives. Still, some options are better than others. Consider the tool once beloved and mastered by the preteen girl: the telephone call. Phone calls provide verbal cues and connection without Zoom’s glitches or eye-contact issues. Phone calls give us access to the same mood-boosting and stress-reducing effects that in-person conversations do, and they don’t need to be very long for us to feel the effects, says Headlee, who suggests asking a friend if they have five or ten minutes to chat, and then sticking to that timeframe. All we have right now are imperfect avatars of interaction, vivid daydreams of the parties and dinners and dates that once were and may yet be. In the meantime, if nothing else, it’s nice just knowing that other people are out there somewhere, wanting to listen and talk.