A sudden pandemic and months of lockdown has left most of remaining at home and getting things done virtually.
From shopping to medical consultations to working to socializing everything is happening over a screen. It’s been so long that we are pretty used to it, or are we?
Many of us are worried about the negative effect that socially distanced or online learning can have on the children and their social skills.
But what about adults? It seems that adults who are deprived of regular and diverse peer-to-peer communication can be just as awkward in social interactions as inexperienced youngsters.
It’s happening to us!
Research on astronauts, prisoners, hermits, polar explorers, soldiers and others who have spent long periods alone suggests that social skills are like muscles that rot away if not regularly used.
People who are isolated from society, by chance or by choice, report that they feel more socially uncomfortable, anxious, intolerant and impulsive when they try to return to regular life.
Psychologists and neuroscientists believe that, due to the pandemic, something similar is happening to all of us.
Whether we are aware of it or not, we are losing our skill and endurance slowly yet steadily in the social setting. Signs are everywhere – people are overreacting or misinterpreting each other’s actions or oversharing on Zoom. Most of us are wishing for, but not really enjoying interaction with, others.
It’s a peculiar social happening that can quickly become persistent if we don’t know why it’s going on and take steps to minimize its impact.
Researchers assure that they have biological reasons and, don’t worry, is not a mental disorder.
Even the most introverted among us are wired to stay connected, says psychologists. It’s an evolutionary imperative, since the time we lived in caves more people meant safety – be it for hunting or keeping themselves safe.
Therefore our brains perceive it as a mortal threat when we are cut off from others. Feeling lonely is just as much a biological warning as starving or feeling hungry.
And just like not drinking water when you’re dehydrated, or not eating when you’re hungry, failing to communicate with others when you’re isolated contributes to negative emotional, cognitive and physiological results, says Stephanie Cacioppo, the director of the Brain Dynamics Laboratory at the University of Chicago. Many of us are probably experiencing it now.
Even if you are spending the pandemic days with a romantic partner or family member, you may still feel lonely. This is often expressed as sadness, irritability, frustration and lethargy and is because you don’t get the full range of human experiences you need, just like when you don’t eat a healthy and complete diet.
We underestimate how much we benefit from informal greetings and conversations at the workplace, gym or art class, not to mention spontaneous exchanges with strangers. But at this point, most of us have not met anyone new in months.
This social deprivation sends our brains into survival mode which dampens our ability to recognize and react appropriately to social situations. Instead we become over-sensitive and hyper aware. Add a seemingly unpredictable virus to the situation and we’re all ready for fight or flight.
You get a sidelong peek from someone and assume the other person hates you instantly. You view an unclear remark as an insult. At the same time, you feel more self-conscious and worry unnecessarily.
Social circumstances, even a fun phone call becomes something to be avoided. People start withdrawing, rationalizing they’re too tired, didn’t like the person or they’d rather watch something on Netflix.
British physician Beth Healey shares her experience after spending a year at a remote outpost in Antarctica as part of a team doing research for the European Space Agency. She says that though the team was warned regarding the difficulty they are likely to face while returning back home after the project, they laughed it off.
But it was true and she felt uneasy being back home. Usually an outspoken person, she found herself holding back at social situations and overwhelmed at even small gatherings. She was nervous about going to a supermarket or getting into a bus.
Some of her fellow crew members had such a hard time adapting that they instantly signed up to go back to Antarctica. Much the same happens with soldiers returning from lengthy deployments and often with prisoners placed in solitary confinement for years. Even if they come home to loving families, they want to go back within days or weeks.
People feeling awkward with others is part of what happens when the usual social interaction is denied that we rely so much on, claims Craig Haney, a psychology professor at the University of California.
You have to make endless intuitive decisions in any interaction — interpreting words, gestures and phrases, and responding accordingly. You will have to have the right timing and pace, and decide how much to share and with whom.This is called social interplay is one of the trickiest things that we ask our brains to do.
We get a lot of practice in normal situations so it becomes very simple. We don’t even think twice about doing it. But you get off your game when you have less chances to practice. And the matter is made worse by the blurred and unclear nature of virtual or masked interactions.
How many times have we given up trying to understand their expressions through a bad internet connection or a mask and just agreed to whatever they were saying for the sake of it?
Small steps at a time
Experts say it’s a slippery slope and advise you to take action to keep your social skills as healthy as possible during this unsocial period.
Studies show that prisoners who find it easier to get back to normal lives are the ones who understood that their isolation was a significant threat to their sense of self and well being and took every opportunity to reach out to others.
This is why it is important to find the time to connect with others every day, whether through a socially distant conversation, telephone call or, at least, a thoughtful message.
Everybody changes over time and something as big as the pandemic that has shaken all of us up and upended the lives of many is sure to do it. Values change, so do personalities. We’re not the same anymore.
So try to stay connected and have empathy for this social weirdness of your own and of other people while the world pulls itself out of the pandemic.
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