By depriving us of the casual and spontaneous social interactions we need to keep our social skills sharp, America's coronavirus epidemic may be making us all a bit more socially awkward—but there are simple steps we can take to maintain our social agility, Kate Murphy writes for the New York Times.
What happens when people miss out on social interactions? Social awkwardness blooms.
Research on people who have been in isolation for long durations—including astronauts, hermits, polar explorers, prisoners, and soldiers—suggests that social skills are much like muscles; they atrophy if we don't use them, Murphy writes. These isolated individuals reported feeling awkward, intolerant, and socially anxious when they reintegrate into society—and experts say the same trend is repeating itself now, as America grapples with an epidemic that requires people to self-isolate.
As Murphy explains, people under normal circumstances have countless opportunities to practice their social skills, including how to interpret people's words, gestures, and expressions—and how to appropriately respond to others. The practice allows people to perfect their timing, pacing, and their level of candidness. But in the middle of America's coronavirus epidemic, with countless people isolating by themselves or with only immediate family or roommates, people have had fewer chances to have unplanned, in-person, face-to-face social interactions—meaning their social prowess diminishes.
As Stefan Hofmann, a professor of psychology at Boston University, put it, "[D]aily interact[ion] with individuals out in the world gives you a sense of belonging and security that comes from feeling you are part of, or have access to, a wider community and network. Social isolation slashes that network." And eventually, Murphy writes, that sense of isolation can lead to feelings of anger, lethargy, sadness, and a desire to withdraw further.
How to become less socially awkward during the country's coronavirus epidemic
But there are steps people can take to avoid the "slippery slope" of awkwardness caused by extended social isolation and regain their social skills during the country's coronavirus epidemic, Murphy writes.
According to Stephanie Cacioppo, director of the Brain Dynamics Laboratory at the University of Chicago, the first step is "to understand is that there are biological reasons for" why we're all experiencing negative cognitive, emotional, and physiological effects associated with social isolation.
"It's not a pathology or mental disorder," she said. Instead, it's an evolutionary adaptation for people to desire social interactions, which have historically helped communities protect themselves against their enemies. As a result, it is only natural for people's brains to interpret social isolation "as a mortal threat," Murphy writes. In response, people's brains enter "survival mode," which heightens their hypervigilance and sensitivity—and makes social interactions more difficult because people begin to misinterpret social cues and interactions, according to Murphy.
Luckily, experts on isolation say there's an easy solution to the problem, Murphy writes: They recommend people continue to practice their social skills during the country's coronavirus epidemic by connecting with others through socially distanced conversations, telephone calls, and thoughtful text messages.
Craig Haney, a psychology professor at the University of California-Santa Cruz who examines the effects of isolation on inmates, said people recover from their symptoms of social isolation faster when they take steps to connect with others.
According to Haney, research shows inmates who understood the effects of social isolation and actively reached out to people for social interactions have had the best recoveries after years of solitary confinement. "The guys who survive best are the ones who write letters and maintain visitation and who maintain communication with other people, even if it's just through the walls of a cell block," he said. "It's the ones who withdraw deeply in and eschew contact with others who do the worst."
Another crucial element to people's reintegration into society once the country's coronavirus epidemic wanes will be their willingness to accept change, Murphy writes.
Beth Healey, a British physician who experienced the side effects of social isolation firsthand when she spent a year conducting research for the European Space Agency at a remote outpost in Antarctica with other crewmembers, said she found her crewmembers who had the hardest time reintegrating into society were those who had assumed they would be able to pick up where they had left off and resume their careers and relationships as if nothing had changed.
But Murphy explains, "People inevitably change over time and certainly after something significant, like a pandemic, upends their lives and shakes their confidence in what they thought they knew. Values shift. Personalities alter. None of us are the same. So give yourself and everyone else a break. Have patience for your own and other people's weirdness" (Murphy, New York Times, 9/1).