As indoor dining reopened in my town, I watched three 20-something women shriek and gossip over zinfandel in a local restaurant. I was there, briefly, in my N95 mask to pick up my takeout.
It occurred to me in that moment, that for as much as I missed dining in at restaurants, I didn’t miss that. I didn’t want to be at the table next to loud people, even when their aerosols no longer contained a deadly contagion.
There is a chance to reset
To be clear, I want the pandemic to be over, but there are so many things I don’t want to go back to. Coworkers sneezing in open workspaces, for instance. Crowded weekend malls. Obligatory birthday brunches. Or cocktail hours of any kind where we have to mingle and make small talk with strangers. One of the silver linings of forced social distancing has been the chance to reset – to hold close those we consider dear and gladly forgo having to dish excuses to everyone else.
“I never want to go back to what normal used to mean,” said Tori Neville, a communications professional who has been working from her Hudson Valley, New York, home since the pandemic hit last year. “I love working from home and not having to do things just to show face. My life is so calm, my anxiety is way down. I’m more connected to my family and to myself. My focus is clearer than ever.”
Who will go back to packed spaces?
More than 50% of employees don’t want to return to office life, according to a recent Pew study. But while it may be easy not to miss rush-hour commutes and ice-cold conference rooms, many have also formed an aversion to formerly enjoyable social pastimes they now just can’t imagine going back to.
Andy Humm, an LGBTQ activist and media maker who wrote theater reviews for more than 30 years, can’t imagine going back to packed spaces like before. “If we ever do go back – even if this pandemic is completely over – I hope that wearing masks in legitimate theaters and movie theaters becomes the rule,” he said.
Have some of us who once considered ourselves social butterflies become wallflowers during a year of stay-at-home? Are we, perhaps, more discerning about how we might plan social outings after a year of rethinking how social encounters could harm us?
We know more than ever that our time on this planet is limited, and it’s just not worth meeting up with that old college friend we never really liked that much anyway. Or our reward-to-risk ratio no longer values a meal out with raucous patrons at the next table.
Some people are more anxious
Some of us are more socially anxious than we were. After all, many of us had more than a year of training ourselves to undo the social impulses we’ve built over a lifetime: embracing that old friend, helping that old man cross the street, chatting up that colleague after the meeting.
More than a year of avoiding social interactions, though, with masks that make those encounters we do have more awkward, has turned some of us into clumsy oafs who feel more comfortable planting tomatoes in our pandemic gardens than shooting the breeze with an acquaintance at a coworker’s retirement dinner. Perhaps we always felt this aversion to social obligations and want to cling to a hermit life post-pandemic.
“Since our social calendar has been limited for the last year, filling it up can feel exhilarating for some yet cause anxiety for others,” said Judith Zackson, the clinical director of Zackson Psychology Group in Greenwich, Connecticut.
Some people will rush to hang out
Younger people will feel more desperate to reconnect socially, according to Zackson, and will rush to return to the pomp and circumstance of daily routines and social engagements, something she calls a “reverse of confinement.”
Older people, however, may be slower to jump back into the scene in order to minimize their risk. The pattern may follow for introverts and extroverts, respectively, with some leaning into their comfort level to stay in and others running with arms wide out back into the crowds.
The pandemic may also have opened up previously undiscovered parts of ourselves, the inner introvert in the formerly outgoing social butterfly, and vice versa.
“Some of my patients who struggled with social anxiety began flexing their muscles of communication during Covid-19,” Zackson said. “Being in their own space increased confidence, openness and reflective thinking with different people with different viewpoints.
“This experience gave them a new perspective, challenged their negative beliefs and facilitated the easing back to normal in-person activities while continuing online interactions,” she said.
Isolation can also lead to social dysfunction
Social isolation, however, can also lead to social dysfunction, as evidenced by multiple studies, including a 2019 study in the The New England Journal of Medicine.
Researchers studied the effects of expeditioners with extreme social isolation in Antarctica and determined that “exposure to environmental monotony and social isolation have deleterious effects on the brain.”
One could argue, though, that a new orientation around finding fulfillment informed by a year of pandemic-induced social distancing isn’t all negative.
If you were a night owl pre-Covid-19, packed into the crowded bars, and now your pleasure-seeking comes in the form of reading a good book alone curled up on the couch with a hot cup of tea or a cold glass of chardonnay, it’s not all bad.
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If you come out of the pandemic more discerning about how you spend your precious time and with whom, it is yours and only yours to decide. And if wallflower or hermit aren’t nicknames you’re ready to wear for the long term, just be prepared to put your patience hat on the next time your coworker chews your ear off about last night’s ball game at the water cooler.
Allison Hope is a writer and native New Yorker who favors humor over sadness, travel over television, and coffee over sleep.