Opinion: Regaining social skills post-COVID ain’t easy

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They say once you’ve learned how to ride a bike, you never forget. I had assumed that getting back into the swing of things, once double-vaccinated and unmasked — at least outdoors — would be much the same.

Pre-pandemic, I would have told you that I’m an extrovert through and through. People are my jam. Old, young, tall, short, quiet, loud, obstinate, agreeable, creative, linear, acerbic, outgoing, shy … regardless of shape or size or personality, I have always been a highly social creature.

This didn’t bode well for my solitude-seeking seatmates on planes, or for my fellow commuters wishing for 45 minutes of blessed silence. I recently did a work-related personality test, and what I lack in analysis and structure, I make up for in sociability. One-on-one is fine with me, but when groups were allowed, my favourite opener was, “Did I tell you the story about … ”

But after 18 months of solitude, the few times I’ve found myself in social settings my instinct has been to retreat. If I do participate anywhere near my former level of zest and verve, I’m spent like a wet noodle, pummelled by exhaustion from something that would have previously left me recharged, zinging with anticipation for the next encounter.

After 18 months of solitude, the few times I’ve found myself in social settings my instinct has been to retreat.

It’s apparent how quickly one can become reclusive, focused only on insular problems and preoccupations, devoid of interest in the struggles of other people.

Those of us with the good fortune to work from home have been ensconced in a literal bubble, and not just the social kind. With the proliferation of click-and-collect and Instacart, we’ve been able to outsource grocery shopping; Amazon gives us the gift of next day delivery — everything from garden hoses and grass seed to kitchen supplies and kids’ clothes; and Uber Eats and Skip the Dishes bring us dinner. Even when life necessitates that we pick something up, some retailers have built convenient lockers where you scan a barcode on your phone to retrieve your patio chair covers or measuring tape, no human interaction required.

The thing is, I used to love those tiny hits of human contact you’d get in the grocery line, or at the cash register, or in the gas station. A 30-second exchange with a stranger in an elevator, or a fleeting grin when a kindly person took an extra moment to hold open a door. With the advent of the mask, suddenly a smile, previously currency to disarm by signalling friendly intent, was no longer valid. A crinkle at the corners of the eyes doesn’t have the same effect.

Somewhere in these last months, in those rare instances I was out in public, I stopped smiling behind my mask. Maybe that tiny change, imperceptible to the outside world, has short-circuited the endorphin rush I once got from simply being shoulder to shoulder with people who held endless potential for positive exchanges.

I’m hopeful this shift in my perspective is only temporary. I’m fumbling around for what once came so easily. My segues are stilted. Sometimes I keep talking even when I notice my audience is waning. I replay awkward moments in my mind, wondering if I said something too bluntly, or missed the mark with a joke.

All I can hope for is that social skills are a bit like getting back on a bike, and that my wobbly resumption — punctuated with a definite loss of finesse and maybe even a little bit of fear — will smooth out and soon I will be riding with confidence again.

Suzanne Westover is the manager of strategic communications and a speechwriter at the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

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