Your Guide to Having a Normal Conversation, For When This is Over

It’s been over a year since we had meaningful, in-person interactions. If any of these things happen, it’s not you; it’s just like that sometimes.
Hannah Smothers
Brooklyn, US
Happy looking sisters discussing while sitting on a bench in public park
Mayur Kakade via Getty

Optimism is in the air: The weather’s warming up, the White House is making increasingly daring promises about getting everyone vaccinated, and folks are beginning to consider the possibility of hanging out with their friends, in person. What a contrast to the doom and gloom of last March, which we won’t get into here. 

Absence from social settings has warped our perception of how a lot of interactions go. As everyone considers their first group hang, there are perhaps some awkward/irritating scenarios that we have all forgotten about, and which happen almost always in the course of a normal conversation. In order to prepare, VICE has compiled a list of things worth remembering about what it’s like to talk to other people in real life. 


Sometimes you have to do a fake laugh

On Zoom, where most people are muted, a hearty smile sufficed as a response to an off-beat and/or awkward anecdote. This doesn’t cut it in real life; you will look like an idiot if you quietly grin all your responses to other people. That twisted, horrible silence that follows someone telling a story at your first real-life post-quarantine party? That is where the fake laughs go. Everyone has been on the receiving end of this, whether they know it or not. It’s OK; a fake laugh is, in its own twisted way, a way of being polite. 

Fake laughing is the pressure to laugh in response to a truly awful/cringey/just plain stupid joke or story. Wise folks will begin practicing their fake laughs now, in order to seamlessly transition back to the real deal. Suggested exercise: Turn on a television sitcom with canned laughter (Friends, Seinfeld, and The Big Bang Theory are all solid options) and laugh when the “audience” laughs. Do this until you sound convincing.

People interrupt one another

“Interruption,” if you’ve lost your memory of it, is a phenomenon in which person A is speaking, and person B (and sometimes also persons C and D, etc.) begins speaking over them. In real life, people don’t intermittently mute and unmute themselves to speak; they just start talking, willy nilly. Sometimes this produces chaos and oral cacophony. 


Try not to be alarmed! While it was once considered to be “rude” (and probably still will be, in certain contexts), it can also be a sign of excitement or enthusiasm; person B is simply so jazzed by what person A is saying, that they feel the need to interject. If you experience this, or even do it yourself, take it as a sign that your conversation is riveting. It’s highly likely that all conversation in the coming months will be filled with interruptions, as we all expel a year of pent-up social energy. Be forgiving to others and yourself. 

People tell stories in excruciating, inane detail 

This can almost certainly be expected in the coming months, since none of us have had any real practice in talking to people other than our closest friends and partners, who put up with our proclivity toward pumping stories up with silly little details. A long-winded, overly detailed anecdote typically includes entire transcribed conversations, such as: “Anna said, ‘Yeah, I know, right,’ and then I was like, ‘Yeah, I do know,’ and then Anna was like, ‘Crazy, isn’t it,’ and I was like, ‘Dude, soooo crazy!’” And so on and so forth. In “good” storytelling, these conversations are shortened, and irrelevant details about what color hairband Anna was wearing, for example, are left out.

It will take time for everyone to get used to telling normal stories again, which will make social interaction kind of terrible for a while, but that’s OK; it will end! Until then, you can use all the extra time a given story takes to practice saying, “totally” and “whoa” at the right intervals.


People start stories and then never finish them 

Typically, this is the result of constant interruption (see above), and happens most often in group settings, in which everyone is excited/amped/stoked, and cannot stop talking over each other. This isn’t bad, per se, but can be irritating for the one to two people who actually wanted to see a story through. You are allowed to follow up later; in fact, that can even be seen as polite interest, and may ultimately bring you closer to your friend. 

People will assume you have interest in something and talk about it endlessly 

This often happens at parties, and is one of the consequences of fake laughter, which can be mistaken, if your laugh is good enough, for genuine enthusiasm. (Kudos to you!) The speaker may interpret your seemingly positive response as an invitation to keep going, just keep on talking about the time they nearly pissed their pants in the park last May, and maybe even did a little. The thing about a freshly ignited social scene is, people probably will be genuinely interested in such conversations. We are starved for boring, mundane, unimportant conversation! 

If you get cornered in conversation and become paralyzed with fear that your formerly strong reflexes are failing you, remember that it’s not you; there simply is no foolproof way to abandon a person who sees your terrified face and interprets it as interest. (We’re all gonna be a little confused about “cues” for a while.) Some decent exit strategies include: fibbing by saying you need to go to the bathroom, get a drink, or check your email/call your friend back; pretending to make eye contact with someone across the room, tilting your chin up a little in a “what’s up” gesture, and saying, “Excuse me for a sec, I told Cameron earlier I’d talk to him about something real quick;” looking down at your phone, or even abruptly walking away and hoping their capacity for forgiveness is as great as yours was when they continued to talk at you. Godspeed. 


People will start talking and forget, mid-speech, what they were talking about

Everyone is going to be doing a lot of this in the coming months. It’s often a result of being so thrilled by your own conversation that you trail off mid-thought and lose the thread. 

This phenomenon usually sounds something like, “Shit, I completely forgot what I was trying to say.” What’s astounding about this behavior is the person who has suddenly lost their own train of thought almost always continues talking anyway. About what? Who’s to say; probably nothing, merely filling time with the sound of their own voice while their brain spins and spins like on Wheel of Fortune, trying to land back on the thought they had just moments ago. But it’s OK. Everyone does this from time to time, and we should be generally forgiving of this behavior, especially in the initial return to life.

People will drift off or look down at their phones while you’re speaking, blatantly ignoring you

A scenario that happens quite often is when a person you are speaking to directly whips out their phone or visibly starts thinking about something else (gets fidgety, starts looking around the room, etc.), nodding along while you talk and clearly not listening to you. Welcome, you are now the one cornering someone else in conversation. 

It’s easy to panic and subsequently act out in this situation, hitting your idle-minded friend with a passive-aggressive, “Yo, I’m talking to you!” Avoid the temptation to do this. We are all so used to filling our time with our own thoughts, doing nothing but subsiding on self-entertainment. It’s going to feel a little overwhelming, to all of a sudden be thrust back into the position of “people talking to me.” Instead of acting out, let your friend drift off into their own internal world; it’s highly probable that you’ll do the same as people resume talking to you in public, too. And then you’ll drift off less. And, after a few tries along these lines, you’ll feel less deliberate and anxious about socializing and find yourself just doing it.

No matter which of the above scenarios you inevitably find yourself in, my bet is that, even when they’re momentarily uncomfortable,  it’ll all feel ultimately good and leave you giddy, like you’re riding a contact high. The thing about all of these situations is they only take place in the company of other people—and what a luxury! As bad and awkward as some of our upcoming hangouts may be, nothing can beat the sublime feeling of vibing with your friends, hearing them laugh, and laughing along with them. We will all stumble a bit through our initial reactions. That’s just one more thing for us to talk about. 

Follow Hannah Smothers on Twitter.