This story is part of But Y Tho, which explores a plethora of funny, strange, and peculiar trends to provide long sought-after answers to questions that have been swimming in all our heads.
It’s been a long pandemic. From its early days of Zoom parties to the social distancing we now know all too well, we’ve all gotten used to the “new normal” that once left many antsy. And now finally, around the world, travel plans are creeping back on the table. Partying and nightlife are also getting a revival after a long hiatus. But if you’re not feeling hyped enough to start going out with friends again or resuming workplace banter offline, you’re not alone.
“This is something I genuinely realized during the pandemic. That eye contact actually takes away a lot of energy from you,” said Esha Paul, a colleague who is currently struggling to relearn her workplace interactions. “Now that the world started opening up and I had to go back to work, the first thing I realized was between the commute to work and talking to people face-to-face, all my energy was drained.”
When Paul found herself working from home by default during the pandemic, she developed the habit of multitasking productively. “Even when I’m talking to someone on a work meeting, I’m doing something on the side, always. I’m, like, literally bedazzling flower pots,” she told me over a Zoom video call, panning her webcam to reveal her silver pots of plants—the sparkling fruits of her work-from-home labor.
But now, Paul knows, even with the best intentions, that her constant fiddling isn’t exactly socially appropriate for discussing Serious Work Stuff with colleagues in the office.
“I just wish people would be OK with me, I don’t know, playing with my phone when I was with them,” she said. “They want my attention, and I just don’t have the attention to give them.
As it turns out, this exhaustion with social interactions isn’t just limited to awkward pantry chats with colleagues in a cramped working space that hasn’t seen this much human traffic in two years. Even among old friends that haven’t caught up in a hot minute, getting back into the groove of large group gatherings can prove to be a trying task.
“As much as I still like hanging out with my friends, I get tired of social interactions faster. No matter how much I like them, it just drains me. And I’m really, really tired when I get home,” said Therese Reyes, another colleague who has found herself confronting a shift in her social tolerance coming out of COVID restrictions.
Amid a major recalibration in the collective way of life over the past two years, first with lockdowns and then with limited reopenings, most people have adjusted to these changes while still living their best life—this includes Reyes, who has thrived in her new, mostly stay-home routine.
“I’ve gotten used to the pandemic lifestyle. I’m a very habitual person. I think a lot of people are, but I really like routine,” said Reyes. “So before the pandemic, I knew that every Friday night I would go out with friends. But then during the pandemic, that changed. So the routine changed too.”
Now, Reyes’ days look a lot more like Netflix on Friday nights and long naps on Saturday afternoons. And dipping her toes back into her pre-pandemic levels of social activity, unfortunately, means cutting into her treasured naptime.
“The few times that I have gone out [on Saturdays], I just have this desire to take a nap right after lunch. And obviously I can’t do that because I’m out,” she said. “Now I would prefer to stay home just so I can tick off all those boxes.”
Barring some levels of COVID anxiety—which have mostly abated now that many people are vaccinated—the social aspect of going out again has been novel for most. It can also be nerve-racking for even the best of us.
“I realized that I couldn’t feel comfortable in a larger group of people,” said Paul. “I felt anxious about being so away from everyone else, that I felt disconnected from everyone.”
“And that meant I wasn’t talking to people. I wasn’t expressing myself… So I was just a boring person at a party.”
Reyes and Paul’s feelings are perfectly understandable, said Annabelle Chow, a Singapore-based clinical psychologist whose clients also shared similar experiences during the pandemic. After two years, many are reluctant to let go of COVID-adjusted lifestyles that they have grown to appreciate, such as indulging their introverted sides.
So is there actually anything wrong with just wanting to chill out at home and avoid talking to people? What if this is just our new personality now?
“Generally, no. I think there’s nothing wrong with wanting to stay in and just not talk to people. But I think the extent matters and the motivation matters,” said Chow, adding that if the anxiety of conversing with people is keeping you at home, such that it’s affecting your quality of life, then it may be a sign of a deeper problem—and probably something you should consult with a professional about.
If you’re eager to catch up on your social life but are just feeling a little nervous about jumping back into the full swing of things, Chow has a few recommendations: Start with small groups, close friends, and a comfortable location and timing to avoid getting overwhelmed. It’s also important to set personal boundaries with these social gatherings instead of feeling obligated to spend the entire day with your friends, she said.
“I think the main point is to do it gently and kindly. Just be gentle with yourself and just constantly check in with how you’re feeling. If you feel like it’s overwhelming, it’s too much, give yourself permission to check out,” said Chow.
“So just be a little bit more intentional and curious about how you’re feeling and make decisions in a more measured way.”