Recently, I was finally able to see my friend Laura for the first time in nearly seven months. I spent weeks looking forward to her visit, meticulously figuring out what to wear and what to eat and what stories I needed to tell her about our time apart. When the night of our hang arrived, we laughed, ate snacks, and stayed up talking late into the night, and it was a huge relief to get a small bit of normalcy back into my life. I hadn’t realized how much I missed simply hanging out.
It was also exhausting.
When I made a joke about time dragging during quarantine, I watched her face to judge if she was giving me a pity laugh or a real one. I immediately thought about germs when we each reached for the bag of chips at the same time, then pulled our hands back warily. Above all, there was the near-constant narration running through my head: This is going well, isn’t it? I think it is. Is she having a good time, too? What do I do with my hands? How do I act like a regular person?
Many of us are feeling a little weird around our friends after going so long without socializing because of COVID, and it’s not just about masks, staying six feet apart, and the fear of a highly contagious illness that thrives on close interaction. Socializing is a skill, and just we haven’t been using it very much for a significant amount of time. We’re all a little rusty.
If you're also feeling this, no matter how happy you are to see your friends, here are some admittedly basic, but very useful things you can do to feel a little more at ease around others—even if I'm still not totally sure what to do with my hands.
Practice with small interactions.
Find tiny ways to sneak friendly, casual interactions into your day—even if it's not something you normally do—to help get you into the habit of seeking out and feeling comfortable with other people. Before a more dedicated hangout, try small social gestures in your daily life: Make conversation with the cashier at the grocery store. Say hello to your neighbor. Even waving to the mailperson counts. Think of this like warming up your muscles before a workout.
According to Sheila Addision, a therapist who specializes in relationships and the executive director of Margin to Center Consulting, we’re already getting used to new social cues that have come about from spending time together in virtual spaces. On a Zoom call, she said, “If somebody kind of leans forward and starts to unmute, other people are noticing, Oh, that person's going to speak,” when, in real life, they just might be demonstrating that they're listening. By easing back into smaller, in-person interactions, even if that's just smiling at someone you're in waiting in line next to, you can start to remember old cues that used to be second nature.
Don’t avoid interactions because you're worried about being awkward.
David Moscovitch is a professor of psychology at University of Waterloo, where he studies social anxiety. According to Moscovitch, avoidance is anxiety's "best friend.” "People who are very anxious tend to look for ways to avoid things that make them anxious naturally," he said. "But we know from a lot of research that the more you avoid something, the harder it becomes.”
Avoiding a task might mean something like staying home instead of meeting up for a picnic. But it could also be something that Moscovitch calls a “safety behavior,” like thinking about what you’ll say next instead of being present in a conversation.
Aim for a 50/50 balance of talking and listening.
This all might seem like kindergarten-level thinking, but, honestly? Now is a good time to help our overloaded brains refocus on a few remedial skills.
So: What if there’s a lull in the conversation and you don’t know how to fill it? Or, what if you can’t seem to stop talking, even if you see your friend’s eyes glazing over? Take a breath, pause, and think about the basic back-and-forth flow of a conversation. If it's a two-person get-together, aim to take up 50 percent of that time.
If there’s a break in the conversation, Moscovitch said that it “could be a great opportunity to ask your friend a question. Anything that shows them that you’re curious about their life." That’s helpful to keep in mind, especially so you're not just filling your 50 percent in a rote kind of way: "When they’re done talking, try to avoid telling your own story right away. Try to follow up with another question that makes it clear you’ve heard what they’ve said.”
The same premise applies if you feel you're talking too much. If your friend has been asking you a bunch of questions, turn the tables and remind them you’re interested in what’s going on in their life. “Imagine the experience from their point of view,” Moscovitch said. “Harness your curiosity of the other person, and ask questions to demonstrate your interest and show you’ve been listening.”
Plan an activity.
If you don’t want all the focus to be on the conversation, connecting over a meal, drinks, or an activity that you all like gives you something to talk about and concentrate your attention on. “If you both enjoy playing tennis, arrange a time to play together,” Moscovitch said. But keep in mind some activities prevent meaningful conversation, “so also put aside some extra time to hang out and catch up before and after the game.”
Just tell your friend how you're feeling.
Acknowledging when things are awkward is often the quickest way to get past the discomfort. You might have to swallow your fears a bit, but if your hang session seems a bit off, don’t just stew on those feelings. Addison suggests saying them out loud without judgement. “You can say, ‘That was kind of awkward, what happened there? I think that came out wrong. Let me try that again,’” he said. Putting those feelings out there helps cut the tension, and lets your friends know where you’re at emotionally.
In the end, Laura and I had a great time, and I’m excited to hang out again when we can. But the extra benefit of hanging out with Laura was that it broke the ice for me. When I saw a different friend the next week, things already felt smoother and less awkward. All it took was a little practice.
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