You're probably more awkward after quarantine, but not because your social skills are gone

amiller@businessinsider.com (Anna Medaris Miller)
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medical coronavirus flu virus nyc street face mask gloves covid19 stores shut down closed restaurants social distancing delivery cox 38

Crystal Cox/Business Insider

  • After months of mostly staying home, learning how to interact with people outside your household  can feel awkward. 

  • There's little to no relevant research on how this period of physical isolation could affect adults' social skills, but experts doubt it's had a significant impact on most. 

  • The awkward part, they say, is more likely related to how we all learn to navigate the new normal and people's differing perspectives on how seriously to follow precautions. 

  • Understand the discomfort is normal and sharing can help us all get past it and stay safe. 

  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

When Christina Juan met a friendly couple while walking her new puppy, she asked them their dog's name. The question would not have been awkward had Juan not asked the same question just a minute before. 

"My social skills have definitely regressed" from having so few physical interactions during the coronavirus pandemic, Juan, a 33-year-old researcher in Washington DC, told Insider. 

She's not alone in that feeling. Others have reported concerns about how they'll ask for help from strangers if they get a flat tire; how they might go on, let alone charm, a first date; and how to politely turn down pals who go in for a hug when they're more comfortable with a wave. 

But experts say that while it there's little to no relevant research on how adults' social skills might decline after a period of underuse, it's unlikely that this stretch of minimal in-person social interaction will take a permanent toll on most of our abilities. 

Rather, they say, the awkwardness will come from negotiating the new normal and people's varying comfort levels with what's safe and what's not. 

"There's a potential weirdness" to face as people begin to re-engage with society, Tony Lemieux, a social psychologist at Georgia State University, previously told Insider. "Like how are we supposed to act now?" 

While kids' social skills may stall or decline, most adults will probably rebound

While it seems a few weeks of isolation isn't be a big deal, it's possible several months in isolation could affect childrens' social development, and those with disabilities may disproportionately fall behind.

For adults, the impact is less clear.

There's little to no research on the topic, Lemieux said, and any potential comparisons don't  match the current situation. Astronauts, for example, have chosen to be isolated and are prepared for it. People in solitary confinement aren't able to Zoom with their families any time of day. 

"It may be the case that in a very prolonged time away from everybody, you would start to see that slippage and deficits, but it seems like we're talking about a relatively short window, even though it feels like a long time," Lemieux said he and colleagues hypothesized.  

People who've connected with others through technology and physically distanced gatherings are especially likely to be protected from re-entry awkwardness.

Experts worry people who've remained socially isolated and those who already suffer from mental-health conditions like social anxiety will face bigger challenges post-lockdown than the occasional public gaffe. 

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medical coronavirus flu virus nyc street face mask gloves covid19 stores shut down closed restaurants social distancing delivery cox 69

Crystal Cox/Business Insider

Most awkwardness will come from navigating the new normal 

Kate Amrine, a musician in Brooklyn told the Wall Street Journal that, under her mask, she thanked an apartment mate for opening the door for her when her hands were full. The woman didn't hear her, mumbling, "You're so ungrateful." 

Awkward. 

Bonnie Taub-Dix, a registered dietitian in New York City, told Insider figuring out how to greet people as we emerge from lockdown is making her most uncomfortable. "We're so used to hugging, kissing, and shaking hands that it seems awkward to not touch in some way," she said. 

Many others have reported that navigating how to handle people who have differing views or behaviors around what "social distancing" means is awkward.

Isa Herrera, a New York City physical therapist, struggled to balance public health concerns with family members' feelings when deciding how to handle the group's vacation home. 

"How can I tell them that they have to follow certain social distancing rules in the house when in years' past, we just hung out, cooked, and played games?" she said. 

Enforcing said rules can also be socially dicey. 

"It's an awkward conversation to have, especially with friends. Do you want to be the person to say, 'Hey excuse me, get away from me?'" Syon Bhanot, a behavioral and public economist at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, told Insider.

We're all awkward sometimes, and especially now 

Even when we're not in a pandemic, awkward situations happen, and psychologists think they do so for a reason: to teach us social norms and boundaries, and prevent us from messing up in the same way in the future.

Mid- and post-pandemic, though, we'll need to establish new cues and adjust accordingly — an especially tricky proposition when what "normal" should look like varies by person. 

Unlike the first phase of lockdown, "it's not a 'just stay at home and only leave for necessary activities'" message, Dr. Mimi Winsberg, a psychiatrist and chief medical officer at Brightside, previously told Insider. "There'll be more room for interpretation, and with that may come some anxiety and disagreements about how that's interpreted."  

She recommends doing what you need to do to feel safe and having conversations ahead of time with family, friends, and coworkers about what feels safe to them. 

Another way to minimize social discomfort is to simply call it out, Lemiuex said. "Acknowledge that there's been this sort of period of a real weirdness that we just want to all get past, so what do we need to do to make that happen?" 

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