That’s what my colleague Jenée said when she first read Kate Murphy’s essay, “We’re All Socially Awkward Now.” I love when a piece I’ve commissioned gets a response like that; it makes me hopeful that many of you will relate to it, too.
Kate’s essay, which published this morning, is about an overlooked side effect of the pandemic: awkwardness. Social skills are a muscle, she argues, and right now they’re atrophying. Our personalities are getting flabby. “The signs are everywhere,” Kate writes: “people oversharing on Zoom, overreacting or misconstruing one another’s behavior, longing for but then not really enjoying contact with others.” Kate takes an everyday interaction and breaks it down into countless decisions — each decision a chance to get it wrong, each one an atom of anxiety. “Social interplay,” she argues, “is one of the most complicated things we ask our brains to do.” You’ve got to “get the timing and pacing right, as well as titrate” — I love the choice of that word — “how much to share and with whom.” She did something similar with a previous piece explaining “why Zoom is terrible.” Our faces express emotion through “an intricate array of minute muscle contractions,” but these “telling twitches all but disappear on pixelated video or, worse, are frozen, smoothed over or delayed to preserve bandwidth.” All that “blocking, freezing, blurring, jerkiness and out-of-sync audio” can “confound perception and scramble subtle social cues.”
Kate wrote that back in April, when she was worried about our ability to communicate over video hangouts. Now she’s worried about our ability to communicate face to face (or worse, mask to mask). After many months apart, I finally saw two of my oldest friends recently. There was so much I had to tell them, but I found myself worrying: Was I going on and on? There was a gap in the conversation.
Silence distended. They had to go — but it was so soon! Would I have any friends left by the time this was over? A few years ago, Kate wrote a popular essay about attachment theory. I keep thinking about the beginning of that story. “We humans are an exquisitely social species,” she wrote, “thriving in good company and suffering in isolation.
More than anything else, our intimate relationships, or lack thereof, shape and define our lives.” Intimacy is on the rocks right now. Kate’s advice is to cut one another — and ourselves — some slack. And she has guidance to share from people who’ve survived much more extreme bouts of isolation, like in polar outposts and solitary confinement. If you’re feeling awkward, I hope you’ll read the piece, and know you’re not alone.