The summer of 2021 is here, and what a summer it seems we are expecting. Concerts, restaurants, festivals, and vacation experiences are back. We can get dressed up for fancy weddings, sing together at religious services, and cheer on our favorite sports teams. We can have real face-to-face conversations and experience the spontaneous kind of communication that is hard to access over Zoom.

While many people are eager to live their best post-COVID life as the US reopens, there are very many people who are dealing with a new kind of anxiety: how do I interact with people again? This may not rise to the level of clinically significant social anxiety, but I would describe many people right now as feeling socially apprehensive

If you’re the kind of person who struggles with communication even a little bit, for any number of reasons, COVID may have put you out of practice. You enjoy having relationships and want to be around people, but may be experiencing a sense of dread or fear of impending awkwardness at the thought of foraying back out into the social world.

Communication is a bit like a muscle: if you don’t use it for a while, your skills can get stiff and clumsy. Just like a prolonged break from physical training, there are recovery principles for communication ability. If you’re ready to see others again but feel apprehensive because of rusty communication skills, here are a few tips to help you “limber up” and ease back into the world of social interaction.

1. Pace yourself

Summer is often a season of large gatherings, and this is extra true in 2021. Any large gathering where there are multiple conversations, various kinds of friends, acquaintances, and strangers, and little to no interaction structure is one of the most challenging types of social situations in existence. If you’ve been socially distancing for eighteen months and find yourself more anxious than ever about RSVPing to a friend’s birthday party, this is normal. In fact, it’s healthy!

A marathoner who takes a year off to heal from an injury doesn’t resume training by running 26.2 miles their first day back. Athletes consider time, distance, intensity, and rest when working themselves back up to prior activity levels. Consider similar parameters for different communication environments to help you re-acclimate to being around others.

2. Keep it short

Set time limits for your initial social engagements. One or two hours is plenty of time to have a quality conversation that is satisfying and sufficient. Let your communication partner(s) know that you need to leave by a certain time when the get-together is still being arranged. This sets the expectation that you will be there for a defined period of time, and you don’t have to worry about making up a reason to leave early during the actual event. 

Of course, if you’re having a great time and want to choose to stay longer, you can! Setting a predetermined deadline for yourself helps create a little bit of structure and certainty heading into the gathering. Certainty and structure can help alleviate anxiety and make it a little easier to push through discomfort.

3. Keep it small

The number of people in a social gathering, and your relationship with those people, contributes to the intensity of a social interaction. A time-limited get-together with two or three familiar friends is very different from an open-ended large group event attended by a mix of acquaintances and distant coworkers. Consider what types of social meetings are most comfortable for you, and what sort of events may be better to decline until you’ve had a little more practice.

If you are receiving invitations to weddings and parties and feel completely overwhelmed, you may want to consider reaching out to specific close friends and initiating some small social outings to help you get that practice. Think about where you are meeting, as well as who you are meeting. Does it make a difference for you to be in someone’s private home, compared to a coffee shop or restaurant where you may be “passively present” with others?

4. Keep it structured

Dinner parties where everyone is left to fend for themselves in the conversation are a common source of communication anxiety for many people, even before COVID. After COVID, well, we seem to be sharing the same set of anxieties. Worried that the first gathering post-quarantine will be full of awkward pandemic small talk? SNL has you covered.

One strategy for minimizing the need for small talk is to have a social engagement that revolves around an activity, where conversation is not the primary purpose of getting together. Physical activities are ideal for this, from frisbee to running to something more organized like volleyball or soccer. Sightseeing or tourist-type activities (even in your hometown!) are a great way to support local arts and culture and provide some structure to your social gathering. It is natural to set a time limit on visiting a museum or garden and you can talk about the exhibit or simply meander silently, but together. Finally, there is the old classic of going to see a movie together. While this activity is often criticized as an unoriginal date idea, “because you don’t actually talk!”, that may be a selling point as you wake up from social hibernation! Depending on the interests of your friend(s), choosing a theatre with an attached arcade is a great way to segue from minimal social interaction during the film to moderate social interaction as you game together.

There is no right or wrong way to socialize.

Social engagement and conversation is different for everyone. Introversion or extraversion doesn’t necessarily correlate to social finesse, either! Some extraverts are very socially awkward, and many introverts are extremely socially graceful. Pay attention to what aspects of social events feel more or less comfortable for you, and know that it’s OK to make intentional choices to help re-establish your social stamina! 

If your social opportunities post-COVID feel very all-or-nothing (sitting at home versus attending boisterous barbecues), consider taking the lead and reaching out to others to create the kind of experience that you need. Know that you are not alone in feeling apprehensive about any potential weirdness...and we all need practice, right now.

If you think you would benefit from additional support with your communication, check out our People Skills coaching and therapy services.