Tips on post-lockdown socialising

Jennifer Dorman, expert sociolinguist from the language learning app Babbel, shares her advice on learning how to socialise in person again as we re-emerge from lockdown

Toning down your body language

A group of people

As many of us have spent much of the last year connecting digitally for both work and socialising, body language has become more important than ever. We have had to perform the gestures that go along with speaking; such as using our hands, posture and facial expressions, in a more exaggerated and obvious way.  This is because we can’t rely on subtle signals or eye contact with delays on video calls.

When we return to a physical setting, we’ll have to be mindful of toning our body language down. The over-the-top way of gesturing that we may have subconsciously adjusted to during lockdown could come across as overly intense or dramatic in real-life. Remember that it’s much easier to pick up on small cues when face-to-face with someone and adjust your body language accordingly.

"Remember that it’s much easier to pick up on small cues when face-to-face with someone and adjust your body language accordingly"

Make eye contact

Smiling Black man in an office

Consider how much you can say to a total stranger without ever uttering a word: This is just how important eye contact is when it comes to communication. A furtive look shared between two passengers on public transport can say, “Do you see that too?”. A smile added into the mix can say anything ranging from, “We just made eye contact and now this is awkward”, to “I come in peace”, to “I don’t know you, but you seem nice and I hope you have a nice day”.

All of this relies on using your eyes to connect with the person you are communicating with, and it’s also a big component of making someone feel understood or heard during conversation. Unfortunately, due to the focus on digital and video communication during the pandemic, eye contact may now feel a bit alien, or be something we forget to do. Whilst you shouldn’t be trying to bore deep into your conversation partner’s soul with an intense stare, try and make at least some eye contact during conversations. It can help to show that you’re present and comfortable in the company of the people around you, and make you feel more connected to others.

Many of us might have to initially overcome feelings of anxiety or awkwardness when making eye contact face-to-face. Looking into the video representation of someone's eyes does not carry the intrinsic emotional connection that exists when we are face-to-face. Once you start using in-person eye contact again, you’ll ease back into the natural swing of things.

Ease into it

Young masked people elbowing 'hello's'

With so much extra attention and energy required to read people’s body language on video calls, many of us may have been experiencing “video fatigue”. This isn’t helped by the fact that we’re more aware that all participants of the video are looking directly at us, with people naturally feeling more exposed in the knowledge that all eyes are focusing on them.

Whether or not individuals will persist in feeling this way once we’re back to face-to-face interactions remains to be seen. It could be that people may reacclimate somewhat slowly to the face-to-face normality of conversation, and that we find ourselves feeling exposed or fatigued when confronted with face-to-face interactions. The best thing we can do to combat this is ease into social settings. Start off small, with one-to-one interactions, and get used to the feeling of in-person conversation again. This will make the larger social situations we can look forward to in the future feel less daunting or overwhelming.

"Start off small, with one-to-one interactions, and get used to the feeling of in-person conversation again"

Learn to keep it casual

White people finding something very funny at a water cooler

Due to the focus on scheduled, digitally mediated communication during the pandemic, there have been fewer opportunities for casual and ad hoc conversations. We have experienced far less interruptions, tangents, or “water cooler” type chit chat in the last year, as we’ve been forced to formally arrange many of our discussions with friends, families and colleagues.

This may have led to ‘maximising our time’ syndrome, which is characterised by the expectation that conversations must have an agenda and result in actions or solutions. Remember that the beauty of conversation is that it can be casual! You don’t need to dive in and make every conversation you have productive, interesting or solution-based.

Try to let go of this habit if you’ve picked it up, and get comfortable with more relaxed or unstructured conversations. It will take a bit of practice, but the more you learn to let go, the more normal light chit-chat will resume.

Mastering the art of small talk

Two people out of shot holding mugs on a table

A big part of learning to be casual again will be returning to the world of small talk, particularly as places like gyms, parks and pubs open up for socialising and we find ourselves meeting with strangers or acquaintances outdoors.

Knowing which issues or taboos to avoid can go a long way when confronted with people we don’t know well. Cautious of overstepping boundaries? Play it safe by staying simple. When in doubt, go-to topics like pop culture, sports and the weather are a good option. They work wonderfully because they’re near universal, shared experiences over which most people can connect. If you’re feeling stuck, a compliment rarely misses the mark, as long as you are sincere with them.

Listen

Socialising in person is going to be a big adjustment. We may soon find ourselves in much louder environments with lots of people around and the possibility of several conversations going on at once, with far more people to understand than we are currently used to. With so many rules and cues to consider, your brain can buzz with a distracting hubbub of voices all trying to help you craft the perfect conversation.

The best way to tune out the white noise? Try your best to listen with intention and show genuine interest. At the end of the day, we’re all social beings who want to be heard. Explore your curiosity by asking open-ended questions—ones that can’t be answered with a “yes” or “no”—to give your conversational partners space to talk about themselves and give you a better sense of how to connect. You’d be surprised at how well you can do in a social setting without talking at all.

"Try your best to listen with intention and show genuine interest"

Remember that it’s normal to feel uneasy

Worried white man looking out of window

When lockdown restrictions loosen, and we experience being reunited with the people we care about and are able to see, we may experience a slight feeling of uneasiness. This can be put down to being starved of face-to-face communication for some months or potentially longer. It may feel almost as though we have “forgotten” how to communicate, as our minds and bodies check in with old norms such as making eye contact and using body language to express ourselves.

While it could take us some time to readapt to traditional ways of communication, these feelings may well be overcome by overriding feelings of joy when reconnecting with our friends and family. Still, if you find yourself feeling worried or anxious about socialising again, remember that it’s perfectly normal and that plenty of people are experiencing “FOMA”—a slang term coined to describe “the fear of meeting up again”. Just as we’ve adjusted to communicating through lockdown, we will soon adjust to face-to-face interactions.

Be patient, take it slowly, and you’ll find yourself feeling comfortable again in no time.

Read more: How to navigate lockdown easing

Read more: Anoushka Shankar: I Remember

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